The GOP calls Democrats soft on terror.

Political ads dissected and explained.
Nov. 25 2003 5:15 PM

Treason's Greetings

The GOP calls Democrats soft on terror.

"Reality" was produced for the Republican National Committee by Crawford Creative. To watch the ad on the RNC Web site, click here. For a transcript of the ad, click here.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

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When Republicans introduced this ad, they suggested that Democrats had twisted President Bush's national security record for months and that it was time to even the score. If so, mission accomplished. In 30 seconds, this ad distorts the Democrats' views and impugns their motives more crudely than the Democrats have done to Bush in two years.

The ad consists of video clips from Bush's most recent State of the Union address, backed by ominous music and interspersed with on-screen text messages known as chyrons. In the first clip, Bush points out that a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack on the United States could be catastrophic. Fair enough. In the next clip, he says, "Our war against terror is a contest of will in which perseverance is power." I agree. We have to fight back.

It's the chyrons that do the dirty work. The second says, "Some are now attacking the President for attacking the terrorists." Bull. Not one leading Democrat in Congress or in the presidential campaign has criticized Bush for attacking terrorists. They've criticized him for not attacking terrorists. Specifically, they've faulted him for attacking Iraq and pretending that this was a blow against terrorism when the evidence indicates that Saddam Hussein gave no more support to al-Qaida—and in some cases, less support—than other regimes did. Meanwhile, Osama Bin Laden remains at large.

We can argue about the wisdom of the Iraq invasion all day. But of all the arguments for that invasion, the notion of "attacking terrorists" remains the weakest. It's true that U.S. troops are now fighting terrorists in postwar Iraq, but it's false that Democrats are against winning that fight. What irks them is the dishonest way Bush got us into that fight in the first place and how badly he has waged it.

Don't even get me started on the vicious parallelism of saying Democrats "attacked the President for attacking the terrorists." That phrase blurs the difference between violence and criticism and all but implies that Democrats are on the side of terrorists. Shame on Bush and the RNC.

In the next clip, Bush complains that his critics "have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike?" After 9/11, this is an understandable view. Basically, Bush is saying we should err on the side of shooting first and asking questions later. But I can't think of a less appropriate time to make that argument than right now, in the wake of a war in which we shot first, then asked questions and found out that we needn't have shot.

"Some call for us to retreat, putting our national security in the hands of others," says the third chyron. The fourth concludes, "Call Congress Now. Tell them to support the President's policy of preemptive self-defense." It's as though the embarrassing intelligence disclosures of the past six months never happened. Only someone who doesn't read the newspapers—or doesn't care what they report—could have authorized this ad.

Every salient premise in the ad is false. Our national security wasn't in jeopardy. Our pre-emptive attack turned out not to be warranted self-defense. The regime Bush ousted wasn't particularly supportive of the terrorists who struck us, and leading Democrats who opposed the war did so for reasons precisely contrary to the reasons the ad attributes to them. Call the White House and the RNC now. Tell them to end the President's policy of lying about Iraq.

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.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

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