From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan
I thought Bush would do this. I thought he'd run ugly, dishonest ads questioning the patriotism of his Democratic opponents. That's what Republicans do in campaigns (see Saxby Chambliss vs. Max Cleland, 2002). That's what the Bushes do when they're running for President (George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis, 1988). But I didn't think Bush would run red-baiting ads a year ahead of the election, before a single vote had been cast for any Democratic candidate.
That the RNC has launched this ad so prematurely may be a hopeful sign for the Democrats. It suggests that the Bush administration recognizes a deep vulnerability on Iraq and is getting panicky. When you're panicked, you can make mistakes that help the other side. That's what I think is happening here. With this spot, Bush and the RNC insult the integrity of anyone who has qualms about the war—and the intelligence of everyone else. According the ad, believing that the invasion of Iraq was not central to the war on terrorism is equivalent to "attacking the President for attacking the terrorists." Arguing that we should occupy Iraq with more support from our allies or the United Nations makes you one of those who "call for us to RETREAT putting our national security in the hands of OTHERS." The scoundrels are seeking their last refuge before the first shot has been fired by a Democratic nominee.
"Pre-emptive self-defense" has a double meaning here. It's not just a label for Bush's policy in Iraq. It's his strategy in the presidential campaign: Brand all criticisms of your policy as disloyal and maybe you won't have to answer them. What effect will this arrogant, aggressive stance have? My instinct is to think that it may do what Bush's arrogant, aggressive stance has done internationally. It will not only energize opponents of the war, but also alienate a good number of fence-sitters and potential supporters.
This ad is a blunt instrument, but one sly element is the way it begs the question of whether the attack on Saddam Hussein is part of the campaign against terrorism. Somber organ music plays in the background as we see clips of Bush warning the nation about the consequences of a terrorist attack on the United States using nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. The doleful music and the ominous words conjure the image of a memorial service after some future catastrophe on an even larger scale than Sept. 11. But as you point out, Bush is using this 9/11 brush to tar Democrats who opposed the war in Iraq precisely because they wanted a more single-minded focus for the war on terrorism.
Of course, the Democrats have their own vulnerabilities on Iraq. Several of the candidates were highly unrealistic, to say the least, in their approach to dealing with Saddam Hussein. With the honorable exceptions of Lieberman and Gephardt, they've all been irresponsible in their refusal to support funding for the occupation—which we need to make a success, whether or not the invasion was a good idea. Criticizing them for such failings may lack the panache of calling them soft on terrorism. But the outrageous claim that the Democrats are aiding Osama will help push neutrals and doubters back into their arms.