During a rather choppy press conference on Tuesday, President Bush forshadowed his own strategy when it comes to debating the Iraq war as the November election approaches:
“I look forward to the debates where people are saying, ‘Oh gosh, the world would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power.”
This is known as trying to frame the issue. Simplify things. Reduce complex policies and controversial actions down to a single phrase that you believe cannot be disputed.
So far, during this election cycle, the Bush team has utterly (and surprisingly) failed to frame the debate. They spent tens of millions trying to make the campaign about flip flops. It didn’t take. They tried to reduce Kerry’s military record to a granular debate of the definitions of ribbons vs medals. It didn’t take. They tried to hit Kerry hard with negative advertising in the hope that Kerry (like Dukakis) would take the bait, thereby turning this election into several month long defense of Kerry’s career in the Senate. But it didn’t take. The campaign remains a referendum on the Bush tenure in the Oval Office. They tried to turn Catholics against Kerry and to use religion as a wedge issue. It didn’t take. Instead, voters are beginning to realize that there is too little breathing room between Bush and Church and State.
The Saddam angle will not take either.
There are other questions that will remain at the center of this debate.
Were the American people misled about the reasons for war?
Did the Bush administration give a thumbs ups to torture at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay?
Why do Bush and Cheney continue (as recently as yesterday) to maintain that there was a strong link between Al Qaeda and Saddam even though there is no evidence of such a connection? (This question is actually easy to answer so far. The lie has worked. Many Americans continue to believe Saddam played a role in 9/11. But ultimately the truth will catch up to this administration).
Why did we choose to alienate much of the world at the very moment when we needed international assistance in the war on terror?
Why has this administration failed so completely to get international troop assistance to relieve the military it supposedly so strongly supports?
And are we safer or less safe after the Iraq war?
Ultimately the election will be framed by voters who, if Rove and Co fail to come up with a better strategy, might be asking themselves: “Oh gosh, would the world would be better off if Bush were not still in power?”