Desperation Time

On the recent fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, President Bush visited all three sites of the mayhem -- the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the courageous passengers took down United Flight 93; the Pentagon, long since rebuilt; and Manhattan's ground zero, earth onto which New York's bickering and feeble Republican politicians have managed in half a decade to lay not a stone.

Any president might have taken this somber whistle-stop tour. But long experience in observing this administration's uses of the attacks makes Bush's excursion different -- a ceremony not of national unity and grief but of image-making for the purpose of political advantage. We've now lived through five years of cowboy talk and admonitions to watch what we say and do; of terrorists being “on the run” and the Iraqi insurgency being in its “last throes”; of attacks -- carefully not from the president, but from everyone else, and issued repeatedly -- on the patriotism of critics.

For an astonishingly long time, it all worked -- the GOP took back the Senate in 2002, morphing Max Cleland into Saddam Hussein. In 2004, Bush won reelection -- not by much, against an uninspiring opponent who ran an awful campaign. But the talisman of 9-11 and everything that arose from it were enough to carry the Republicans over the top.

Now, as we hurtle toward our third consecutive campaign fought around these issues, it's over. Bush isn't even the functional president of the United States anymore. Nearly two-thirds of Americans having given up on him -- approval ratings in the 30s for the better part of a year -- Bush for several months now has been president not of a nation but of a faction, and it's very unlikely that he will ever be the president of the full nation again.

He and Karl Rove brought this condition entirely upon themselves. They see now the downside of using a national tragedy to create partisan advantage. If Bush, Rove, and the Republicans had genuinely sought to unify the country and the democratic world after 9-11, Bush would still be the recipient of goodwill, even with the catastrophe that is Iraq. But they sought to divide and conquer, and they are left now with their meager spoils, Bonapartes after Russia. In the long run, they're headed toward iniquity and history's contempt. But in the short term, they will not go gently, and their particular brand of rage against the dying of the light will produce an uglier campaign this fall than any we've seen in a very, very, very long time. Democrats, as will be explained below, should think of this as the Mark Kennedy election.

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Bush's 9-11 commemorations fell in the middle of a series of four speeches, the first delivered August 31 to American Legionnaires in Salt Lake City and the last slated for September 19 at the United Nations. Bush's Salt Lake City speech marked the culmination of the administration's first election-related barrage, following speeches by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, on successive days.

As usual, the double-speak in all the speeches defied belief. Cheney, apparently forgetting who invaded Mesopotamia, averred that “the terrorists have made Iraq the central front in this war.” Also as usual, the doublespeak was delivered in the service not of national unity but of expressly political aims. Those who disagree with us, said Cheney and (especially) Rumsfeld, are appeasers. Rumsfeld put matters more bluntly than they've ever been put before. His invocation of Hitler and Churchill, and his unnamed U.S. senator who said in 1939 that if only he'd talked to Hitler “all of this might have been avoided” (this was William Borah, a Republican isolationist), was widely discussed, and widely criticized, even by some pro-administration commentators. But it's somewhere between likely and inevitable that this sort of rhetoric will continue and intensify through Election Day.

It will continue because the GOP is in more desperate shape in this election than it has been in years. One probably has to go back to the 1974 midterm elections, held in the wake of Richard Nixon's resignation, to find a time when Republican prospects looked so bleak. Consider: Six Republican Senate incumbents are fighting for their lives. George Allen in Virginia; Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania; Conrad Burns in Montana; Lincoln Chaffee in Rhode Island (a likely loser, as we went to press, in his September 12 primary against a conservative opponent, he also faces a strong Democratic challenge in November); Jim Talent in Missouri; Mike DeWine in Ohio. Republicans have hope of defeating only two Democratic Senate incumbents, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Maria Cantwell in Washington. The three red-state Democratic incumbents, considered an endangered species just a few months ago, barely have races. On the House side, of the 30 or so most closely watched races, many looked as of the Labor Day weekend like possible Democratic pickups (the party needs 15 to take back the House).

Democratic control of one house of Congress, let alone both, would effectively end what remains of the Bush presidency. Put aside what the Democrats might do in terms of investigations and oversight [see Robert Kuttner, “A Slight Oversight”]. The real implosion would be within the Republican Party itself. Bush, an albatross to those seeking the GOP nomination in 2008, would be increasingly isolated within his own party: as Iraq fails to improve, those candidates would start jumping off the “stay-the-course” ship; Rumsfeld would surely have to go (a strategy the Democrats are pushing before Congress adjourns); Cheney would carry less weight with GOP senators; the media, never a leader but a pretty reliable follower, would start paying more respectful attention to a Democratic House or Senate majority. In sum, the White House's stranglehold on politics in this town would cease to be.

Rove, too, would be diminished, and he will obviously not let all this happen without a fight. But not just a fight; a fight, Rove style. And now we return to Mark Kennedy. He was a Democratic judge in Alabama, and in 1994, Rove ran the campaign of his GOP challenger for a seat on the state's Supreme Court. Kennedy had been a family-court judge and had taken an interest in working with abused children. As The Atlantic's Josh Green, who broke the story (it has become legend in certain liberal circles but is hardly known elsewhere), wrote in 2004, “Some of Kennedy's campaign commercials touted his volunteer work, including one that showed him holding hands with children.” Rove did not try to counter this by, for example, showcasing his own candidate's humanitarianism. Instead, a source told Green, he helped initiate a smear campaign against Kennedy accusing him of being a pedophile.

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It won't be pedophilia this year. It won't even be gay marriage and values. It will be Chamberlainism. In early September, Bill Frist, the outgoing Senate majority leader, sketched out a strategy of trying to pin Democrats against the wall on a series of national-security votes, including one to authorize retroactively the administration's domestic surveillance program. The GOP united front around this strategy showed signs of crumbling within days. But should the Republicans pursue it, Democrats must avoid taking the bait on these votes. They need to remember that they're in this mess partly because so many of them fell into the Bush-Rove trap in 2002 and voted for the Iraq War resolution that was pushed on them a month before that year's midterms. If more of them had followed their convictions instead of their ambitions and voted against the war, they'd be much more credible critics today. They should have learned in the last five years that there is no point in trying to be bipartisan about anything.

The GOP tactics could still work. Fear of another terrorist attack remains high across the country, and the Republicans will exploit that fear more shamelessly than ever. But five years of such exploitation has also left the public weary and distrustful. And Democrats might recall that Mark Kennedy, even after Rove's whispering campaign, ended up winning that 1994 election.