When the president spoke Monday night from the Oval Office, his political strategy seemed obvious enough. This was the culminating moment of a two-week effort to explain what’s really at stake in the war on terror. President Bush used the broadest language possible. America is engaged in a battle for civilization and a defining mission of our generation. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan represent only the “early hour of the struggle between tyranny and freedom.” By talking about the wide sweep of the conflict, Bush and his Republican allies hope to rally the country around his policies and frame the national security debate for the remaining days before the election. They are the big-picture party. Democrats may talk about difficulties in Iraq, but Republicans have their eye on the historical prize.
As Bush spoke, I wondered whether Republican candidates are really signing up for all of this. The president outlined a protracted struggle not just to kill the people who are trying to kill us but to take on a much more difficult second chapter: spreading democracy throughout the Middle East. He promised a day in which “nations of that region recognize that their greatest resource is not the oil in the ground—but the talent and creativity of their people. We look to the day when moms and dads throughout the Middle East see a future of hope and opportunity for their children. And when that good day comes, the clouds of war will part … the appeal of radicalism will decline … and we will leave our children with a better and safer world.”
To fail at the second task of promoting democracy, the president argued, is as dangerous as failing at the first in Iraq. And yet the Republican members of Congress, who will be the stewards of the democracy program after Bush leaves office, don’t talk about it much in their stump speeches. They usually mine presidential speeches for their own remarks, but you’re not likely to hear them talk about clouds parting this election season. That’s understandable. It’s tricky enough trying to convince people to relink the war in Iraq to their personal security. It’s political suicide to run for office promising an epoch-long battle to turn around the Middle East.
So, in order for Republicans to win in November and sustain their majority, they have to ignore the second part of the president’s message and hope that voters ignore that part too. Yes, candidates want the high-flown rhetoric of world-shaping struggles when it can be used as a wedge against Democrats. But all of that spreading democracy stuff is just too much to talk about on the campaign trail this fall.
Shouldn’t it bother President Bush that the candidates he’s stumping for don’t really support his grand plan? If this is the true test of our time and if the hope of free people everywhere rests on our ability to spread liberty through the Middle East, then Republican candidates should be talking about it in nearly every speech. The president knows better than anyone that repetition is the key to getting your message across.
Bush probably isn’t bothered much, though, because he’s in on the joke. He supplies the broad-brush rhetoric in the hopes that voters will judge the world too dangerous and the struggle too big to hand over to Democrats. At the same time, he knows it’s risky for individual candidates to run on a commitment to a protracted battle for civilization. If they talk about it too much, voters might tie them to the generation-long costs and sacrifice such a struggle would require. So Bush doesn’t expect to hear his speech echoed.
In the past, the president has used the memory of the 9/11 attacks and their victims to build support for his crusade to hunt down terrorists. On Monday night, he used the solemn anniversary moment to dedicate the nation to building a new Middle East. The country was with him for the first mission and still is, barely. But it’s not clear whether even his Republican allies are with him for the second.