Bad Politics

by Brian Nick | 5/21/02 5:00am

It was just too good to last. The civil dialogue on the war against terrorism we had in this country for the past eight months has all but disintegrated, and both sides are to blame. Last week a story broke that the Republicans were using a controversial photograph of President Bush on Sept. 11 to raise money. More recently, some in Congress have gone public saying that our government may have been able to do more to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. As usual, both sides are a little bit right and a little bit wrong, and the American people are left wondering whom, if anyone, they can trust.

Last week, the Republican Party began giving out photo albums featuring three pictures of President Bush to people who donate more than $150 to the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. One of the photographs was taken on Sept. 11 while President Bush was talking on the phone to Vice President Cheney on Air Force One, which spent most of that day flying from undisclosed location to undisclosed location. Ever since that day, the president has stressed that the war on terror should never be a political issue. To the extent that he has resisted the urge to capitalize politically on the war, Bush has earned credibility as an effective wartime leader for America. Whether or not the White House had a hand in creating the album for fundraising purposes (and public officials say they did not), the very fact that it was used to raise money does a disservice to Bush's war mandate.

Opponents have a right to be critical of the president. The notion coming from the White House that it is unpatriotic to criticize Bush's war policies has hampered the Democrats considerably. Now, however, Bush has allowed his image as a "war president" to be used for political gain. Clearly the Democrats cannot allow themselves to be handcuffed continuously on this issue up through the November elections, especially if it increases the Republicans' political capital. However, they realize that as long as the terrorists are on the run from the U.S. military any overt questioning of Bush's methods or dedication could be seen as not properly supporting our troops. This is always a danger for the political opposition in a time of war, which brings us to the second issue.

Thanks to some crack reporting from the Washington press corps (and possibly an ill-advised intelligence leak or two from Congress) a story broke late last week that the Bush administration had gathered several pieces of general evidence that Al-Qaida was planning to attack the United States sometime last year. The allegation is that the FBI and CIA each had some intelligence that indicated the attack might come last summer. It appears the White House, specifically the National Security Agency, had some vague knowledge of this as well, but failed to put the pieces together to stop Sept. 11. The various security organizations failed to pool their information, which could have connected Al-Qaida's activity abroad to the suspicious behavior of Arab men in flight schools here at home.

The obvious question is, could the White House have done something to prevent the attacks based on the information they received? The answer coming from rational insiders on both sides of the aisle is no. Of course many Democrats pounced on this story anyway. Party leaders like Dick Gephardt and Hillary Clinton reacted by making it clear that although they did not believe the president could have prevented the attacks, they were upset that the White House had not released the pre-Sept. 11 intelligence reports sooner. This complaint is legitimate, and it would be political malpractice not to show at least some displeasure. The Democratic Party operatives, however, were singing a different tune. The James Carvilles and Paul Begalas of the world disingenuously avowed that they too believed the president, but that they simply wanted to know "who knew what, and when did they know it." This phrase, first used during the unfolding of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, is a not-so-subtle attempt to link Bush's lack of action to President Nixon's cover-up of illegal activities during his administration.

Overnight polls in subsequent days have indicated that, while a slim majority of Americans feels that the White House should have done more to prevent the attacks, far more people blame the FBI and CIA for the lack of preparation. Democrats seem to have gotten the message and have ceased the Watergate talk, and the party leaders seem to be backing off criticism of Bush on this issue altogether. One has to wonder just how large an impact polling has on the day to day operations of the Democratic Party.

War politics is not a zero-sum game. It is a negative-sum game. Both sides lose when baseless accusations are made. If information is released indicating that the Bush administration has truly acted irresponsibly or if it appears the military operation is not working, then public debate will be healthy, indeed it will be necessary. However, when Republicans use a picture of President Bush on Sept. 11 to raise money and Democrats insinuate without evidence that the Bush administration sat on information that could have save thousands of lives, no greater good is served. Both acts are examples not only of bad taste, but of bad politics.