Work and Days


The Gonzales Hearings…

True, the Attorney General appeared as the proverbial deer in the headlights as he was hammered by the Democratic Senators of the Judiciary Committee. But I was struck by the ineptness of Sen. Feingold, the scholar and erudite inquisitor: he grilled ad nauseam Gonzales by reading his talking points from a prepared written script, punctuated by turns and awkward poses into the camera, while the latter did his best to answer complex questions ex tempore. Which is the harder task?

Is that Hillary?

After watching the Democratic debates, I was struck by the appearance of Sen. Hillary Clinton. She has changed her appearance as much in the last six years as George Bush; but whereas the President has turned grey and white, and aged with the wear and tear of the job, Sen. Clinton looks far younger, her skin much whiter and smoother, lines gone, and mouth tighter.

Are They Serious?

Sens. Jack Reid and John Kerry replied to the President today. Their arguments were quite astounding: that the good news that suddenly Sunni tribal leaders are joining the Americans to defeat al Qaeda is proof that we need not be there and can now turn over the fight to Iraqis and Special Forces. But wait, that is precisely what the surge was for: a sudden conventional knock-out blow, to give the Iraqis enough confidence to take over the job, as the Americans begin to downsize in the next two years. The suggestion that the surge hasn’t had positive effects with the Sunnis is lunatic. And more to the point: throughout this entire year in Iraq, not a single Democratic leader, other than Joe Lieberman, can either appreciate some good news, or voice any resolve that we can defeat the enemy. The net result is the Democrats are positioning themselves into a corner in which any good news from Iraq de facto is fatal to their election prospects. No wonder the room was nearly empty as the Senators droned on.

Gen. Petraeus

Lincoln went through Gens. Burnside, Halleck, McClellan, McDowell, Pope, and Rosecrans before finding Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Thomas. In World War II, we never did get Mark Clark out of Italy. No need to mention the train of generals in Vietnam before Creighton Abrams turned things around. Good generals study the errors of their predecessors as they wait for history’s call. In the case of Sherman and Grant, the key difference that marked them as great men, other than an instinctive genius for tactics and strategy, was insight into the mind of the enemy, especially his motivations and contradictions, and a complete calmness in the face of the battle hysteria around them and the backbiting at home.

I preface all that by saying I believe Gen. Petraeus is the right commander after Franks, Sanchez, and Casey, unflappable in the face of bad news at the front and politicking at the rear. If we can give him a year, he will stabilize the country—and the US will have pulled off the impossible of establishing some sort of consensual society, analogous to a Kurdistan or Turkey, in the heart of the ancient caliphate.

How will we sense any progress? Mostly to the degree which Democratic rhetoric insidiously lessens, as Sens. Like Biden, Clinton, Obama et al. begin to hedge their bets in fear that good news will embarrass them around midyear next. Some more thoughts:

Republicans Bad, but Democrats Worse?

That might sum up polls that show overwhelming anger at President Bush—and even more disdain for the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Why the general anger at government?

Seventy percent of the American public now thinks Iraq is a mistake. That’s about the same majority that four years ago once thought it was a wise idea to go in to remove Saddam Hussein—and the result of a narrative that is only the IED and suicide bomber, interspliced with Abu Ghraib.

In addition, a weak dollar, continual budget deficits, and huge foreign debt to China and Japan don’t faze most Americans directly. But they do tend to add to general doubt over the economy—a depression only made worse by high gas prices.

It matters little whether Americans are hypocritical about illegal immigration—wanting closed borders and cheap labor all at once. They still feel angry that American sovereignty on the southern border has been lost, while millions of illegal aliens among them simply ignore the law.

As a result of this discontent, President Bush has barely a 30% approval rating. Yet the leading presidential candidate of his party, Rudy Giuliani, still runs ahead of Democratic leader Sen. Hillary Clinton in tracking polls.

Why Haven’t Democrats Taken Better Advantage Over the Anger at a Lame-duck Republican President?

First, things are not quite as bad as they first look. Americans are frustrated over Iraq, but not quite sure that we can precipitously leave—or that Iraq won’t be stabilized.

Last year the Democrats wanted new tactics, more troops, a change in command, and a new defense secretary—and got all that with the surge, Sec. Gates and Gen. Petraeus. If the Sunni insurgents of Anbar keep turning on al Qaeda, and the government can achieve some compromises—Iraq could devolve into something like present-day Afghanistan: messy and an irritant, but far better than the alternative of either a Taliban theocracy or Saddam-like dictatorship.

For all the shrill rhetoric about the excesses of wiretaps, the Patriot Act, renditions, and Guantanamo, the Democrats for now won’t end these security measures. It’s hard, after all, to complain too much when al Qaeda hasn’t attacked us in six years. House Speaker Pelosi didn’t help the Democrats’ case by flying to meet with Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator who helps terrorists to murder democratic reformers from Lebanon to Iraq.

On the economic front even with climbing gas and food prices, overall inflation remains relatively low. So is unemployment. There are no longer cries of a “jobless recovery.” Interest rates are tolerable. The stock market has reached all-time highs. Most displeasure is over others doing better, rather than not doing well yourself.

Illegal immigration is still a hot button issue. But recent beefed-up enforcement, some economic progress in Mexico, and worries about deportation have made it harder to cross the border. And the public is optimistic that there will be a lot more, not less, border enforcement.

And Something Else…

There is a second reason why the Democrats should be careful. Most of the corrections for Mr. Bush’s perceived mistakes are not necessarily liberal ones. A lot of anger over the war—the first pullback from Fallujah, the reprieve given Moqtada Sadr, the restrictive rules of engagement—is voiced from the political Right: talking loudly while carrying a small stick.

Ditto the nature of criticism of the economy. Americans don’t want new federal programs, higher taxes and more spending. Instead, they fault the Bush administration for its vast new entitlements, bloated budgets, and growing national debt. Again, the outrage comes mostly from conservatives.

On immigration, most Americans want a fence, strict enforcement of the law and more security. Hot-button issues like amnesty and guest workers can come later. In other words, the recent Bush immigration reform legislation, backed by most Democrats, was seen as too lax rather than restrictive.

In sum, most voters wanted President Bush to give the military more leeway on Iraq, balance the budget, and close the border. And they still can’t quite decide whether a Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton would be more likely to do what the President did not.

So what will determine the next election? If Sen. Clinton or another Democrat can make the case that George Bush was too directionless on Iraq, spent too much money, and left the border wide open, she will probably win. But if Iraq calms down and Gen. Petraeus succeeds, while Sen. Clinton and others call for more taxes, more programs, amnesty, etc. then they will achieve the unlikely: three continuous Republican administrations.

The Furor Over Bush

Spent a week with some diehard conservatives, what one might call his hard-core base. All of whom seem to detest Bush. Part of it is immigration, big spending, federal programs, bad or rather embarrassing appointments, and Iraq. But part of it is simply piling on and hoping not to be seen as the lone nut who thinks Bush can pull off a successful presidency. I was very disappointed that we pulled back from Fallujah, let Sadr off, saw Franks quit almost as soon as the insurgency started, kept seeing Bremer everywhere on TV with his blazer and hiking boots, and all the other half measures that empowered the insurgency—but not to the degree that I lost hope we could win. The US military is too good for that.

So the real irony is that should Petraeus stabilize Iraq, if Korea really has given up its weapons, if the world comes together on Iranian proliferation, Afghanistan gets quieter, and either bin Laden or Zawahiri gets captured—while the economy stays strong and an immigration fence is built, then mirabile dictu Bush will leave office in a good position to be praised in 10 years for preventing another 9/11, removing Saddam and the Taliban, decimating al Qaeda, and stopping nonproliferation. He needs some luck, must not listen to his short-term politicos who always choose apparent advantage over principle, and must keep his resolve. I told all that to some prominent Republicans—and was laughed at for it.