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Democrats question Iraq timing

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Democrats question Iraq timing

Talk of war distracts from election issues

By Dana Milbank

THE WASHINGTON POST

Sept. 16 — Why now? That’s the question Democratic lawmakers and strategists are asking about President Bush’s demand that Congress authorize war against Iraq before November’s midterm elections.

THOUGH FEW doubt the merits of the case against Saddam Hussein, an increasing number are questioning whether the timing — 60 days before an election — was designed to benefit Republican candidates.

Bush provoked suspicions Friday when he warned Democrats not to wait for the United Nations to act. “If I were running for office, I’m not sure how I’d explain to the American people — say, vote for me, and, oh, by the way, on a matter of national security, I think I’m going to wait for somebody else to act,” he said. The president’s words closely followed those used by one of his top advisers in a briefing Thursday, indicating a coordinated White House strategy.

Two weeks ago, the headlines were about a lethargic economy, a depressed stock market and corporate misdeeds; the news about Iraq was about policy disagreements among Bush advisers. Now, the debate has shifted almost entirely from Democrats’ preferred domestic issues to preparations for military action, a GOP favorite.

“It’s hard not to notice that the sudden urgency of war with Iraq has coincided precisely with the emergence of the corporate scandal story, with the flip in the congressional [poll] numbers and with the decline in the Republicans’ prospects for retaking the Senate majority,” said Jim Jordan, director of the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee. “It’s absolutely clear that the administration has timed the Iraq public relations campaign to influence the midterm elections . . . and to distract the voting public from a failing economy and an unpopular Republican domestic agenda.”

HARDBALL POLITICS

Though Bush is likely to win broad congressional support after Thursday’s well-received speech, the hardball politics he exhibited Friday may cause doubts among would-be allies about the purity of his motives. Democrats contrasted Bush’s stance with his father’s decision 12 years ago to postpone a vote on hostilities with Iraq until after midterm elections.

Democratic leaders, though cautious in their public remarks, have voiced concerns. “I would say that the concerns we have about the politicization of this whole issue are ones that still exist,” Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said Thursday. “I don’t think that they ought to be minimized, and I think we’d have to work very hard not to politicize this series of questions and this deliberation.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) had similar worries. “Some issues are so serious, so important to the United States, that they should be taken as far out of the realm of politics as possible,” Biden said. “This is one of those issues.”

Earlier, former president Bill Clinton raised doubts, too. “We know [al Qaeda members] still have a terrorist network around the world,” he said. “And we’re already kind of changing the subject here, looking at Saddam Hussein, who’s not going anywhere.”

Bush aides angrily reject the accusation of a “Wag the Dog” attempt, after a Hollywood film that depicted a phony war to distract public attention from domestic trouble. “Even the suggestion that the timing of something so serious could be done for political reasons is reprehensible,” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, using the same description Vice President Cheney used earlier. “Iraq presents a serious problem, and it’s being dealt with seriously.”

Whatever the White House motive, the emergence of Iraq as an issue before the election has spooked Democrats, who find themselves struggling for a response. Though there is no consensus for handling the matter, party strategists said the likeliest course is for Democrats to agree to votes quickly on a resolution authorizing force against Hussein-in hopes of getting back to domestic matters.

Democrats brought some of the difficulty on themselves, administration officials say. In July and August, when it appeared there were divisions within the administration about whether to involve Congress and the United Nations, Democrats clamored for a full debate on Iraq. As Fleischer put it: “The Democrats, to their credit, asked the president to make his case. He’s doing what they asked him to do.”

“The Democrats responded to what they perceived as administration confusion in July and August, but they did not think out the consequences,” said Hudson Institute analyst Marshall Wittmann. In a “massive blunder,” Democrats demanded exactly what they got from Bush: a debate on Iraq that diminishes Democrats’ issues.

‘NOT...OUT OF LEFT FIELD’

Administration officials say their decision to roll out their arguments on Iraq after Labor Day was based on a combination of logistical, diplomatic and intelligence calculations — but not political ones. Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, pointed out that Bush mentioned the menace of Iraq in his State of the Union address in January and outlined his justifications for attacking such states in a spring address at West Point. “This is not something coming out of left field,” Bartlett said.

Also, there was genuine disagreement in the administration about how to deal with Iraq. Bush spokesmen generally denied or downplayed the rifts, but even in late August, there was public disagreement between Cheney, who had no use for weapons inspections, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who saw inspections as a necessary first step.

There were also debates about whether to work in concert with Congress or the United Nations. That prevented action on Iraq until the dispute was resolved in recent weeks, when Bush decided to seek support in Congress and the United Nations, but make clear to the world body that the United States would act on its own if the United Nations did not move expeditiously.

The administration says the politically useful timing is just coincidence. “That’s got nothing to do with it,” Cheney said on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show Friday. “What’s happening, of course, is we’re getting additional information that, in fact, [Hussein] is reconstituting his biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs and that’s what really precipitates the concern now.”

But the White House has sent contradictory signs about the role of politics. Karl Rove, Bush’s top political adviser, has been photographed with the president in meetings about Iraq and has been put forward to speak publicly about the timing of the Iraq rollout. It was Rove who argued earlier this year that the war on terrorism should be part of Republicans’ campaigns this year. Last week, White House political aides encouraged GOP candidates to emphasize national security. Also, Andrew H. Card Jr., Bush’s chief of staff, said last week that the White House held back on promoting the Iraq policy in the summer because, “from a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”

And Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, made an Iraq vote explicitly political, saying, “People are going to want to know, before the elections, where their representatives stand.”

That infuriated Democrats. “It only reinforces skepticism about the timing,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic operative who was Al Gore’s campaign spokesman. “If Iraq truly is a threat — and it may very well be — Saddam is not constructing his weapons of mass destruction in accordance to our midterm calendar.”

Ultimately, the administration’s intentions in Iraq are likely never to reach the wag-the-dog scenario. Though Bush is seeking authorization for hostilities from Congress and the United Nations, lawmakers and Bush aides say there will be no “October surprise,” in which an attack is launched before the Nov. 5 elections. Also, the logistics of military preparation would probably not allow for action before November, at the earliest.

Democratic leaders have not suggested that Bush has invented or exaggerated the Iraqi threat for political gain. A top Daschle aide said that it’s more of a fortuitous “diversion” from domestic matters. “He’s happy to keep the focus off the economy,” the aide said.

In that sense, this is different from 1998, when Clinton ordered bombing of Iraq on the eve of an impeachment vote and GOP leaders openly challenged his motives. “Both the timing and the policy are open to question,” then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said at the time. Paul Begala, who as a Clinton counselor in 1998 adamantly denied the wag-the-dog accusations, argued that there’s a better case to be made for it now. “Bush says again and again, ‘I’m a patient man,’ ” Begala said. “Why then rush the vote before the elections?”

Nonsense, said a top Bush aide. “It’s impossible to game if there’s a winner or a loser politically,” the aide said. “The idea that it’s beneficial to ask fathers and mothers to put their sons and daughters in harm’s way before an election is absurd.”

Democratic strategists anxiously hope that’s correct. “Voters have made a fundamental bifurcation: They see the president dealing with the war and the Congress dealing with domestic issues,” said pollster Mark Mellman. Still, he added, “we’d rather have the newspapers filled with discussions of pensions.”

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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