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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Distorted View from Bush's Rabbit Hole

by Marianne Means
WASHINGTON - During his Monday news conference, President Bush disappeared down the rabbit hole.

Just as Alice tumbled into Wonderland, our esteemed leader abandoned the grim reality of life above ground for the happy fantasy of imagination in a land that doesn't exist. On the surface, the president was being strong and unwavering about the fact that he has no new ideas, his party is in trouble, the economy is uncertain and his dream of a peaceful new Middle East is crumbling.

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But the conflict in Iraq he described did not much resemble the violent civil war most others see. Can tea parties with the Mad Hatter be far behind?

It is understandable the president is having difficulty coping with the ugliness of what his unprovoked invasion has wrought. He felt such pressure to counter growing public realization of the Iraqi disaster that he mounted an abrupt charm offensive before the press corps. He joked and behaved as though he liked some of them.

The idea was to intimidate Democrats who have been more noisy about demanding a timetable for Iraq withdrawal.

But it is getting away from him, this war. The president acknowledged that these times are "straining the psyche of our country." For a president who never admits a mistake, this was a highly unusual -- and not altogether wise -- political statement.

Jimmy Carter was the last president to blame his problems on the mood of the country, complaining about a national economic malaise. (He never used the word "malaise" but everybody got the message). He lost re-election to Sunny Ron, who envisioned a new "morning in America."

Bush strained to make Dick Cheney's case that the Iraq war is a critical part of the overall struggle against terrorism. His poll approval ratings are higher on fighting terrorism than on handling Iraq.

But when he tried to tie the Sept 11 terrorist attacks to Saddam Hussein, a reporter asked "What did Iraq have to do with that?" In a sudden burst of candor, the president said, "Nothing."

Then he went back to the familiar political message that terrorism and Iraq are one and the same, echoing Cheney's recent charge that dovish Ned Lamont's primary victory over hawkish Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut could encourage "al-Qaida types."

But he distanced himself from harsh GOP charges insinuating that Democrats who want to pull out are unpatriotic. This theme worked for him in 2002 and 2004 but is growing thread-bare now. War critics "are just as American as I am," Bush said. "I just happen to disagree with them."

Even the British, who have soldiered alongside him on Iraq, are finally backing away. They are preparing to withdraw half their troops, about 4,000 men and women, from the battle zone in southern Iraq.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has been under sharp political attack for his ties to Bush and Iraq; his popularity has tanked.

But Bush isn't budging from his message that leaving Iraq would create chaos. What does he think is going on there now? The view from the rabbit hole must indeed be a distorted one, all prettied up.

This weekend the president tried to create a distraction from Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan by holding an economic summit at Camp David. But he was down the rabbit hole on that issue, too.

He said his huge tax cuts for the rich had reduced the unrealistically elevated budget deficits the administration had projected -- but the deficits would still be around $300 billion. Not much to cheer about for a president who inherited triple-digit budget surpluses.

And the public does not buy his optimistic outlook on the economy any more than on Iraq. A new Pew poll, for instance, reports that only 33 percent approve of his handling of the economy while 59 percent disapprove.

A similar USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll puts Bush's overall approval rating just a tad higher -- 39 percent.

The president's Monday news conference was a brief, jolly diversion for reporters but nothing likely to be of lasting impact. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid was predictably unpersuaded. "President Bush is wrong to say that success in Iraq is a question of resolve," he said. "It is a question of strategy."

And the rabbit hole strategy, while comforting fiction, is not a long-term winner in the real world.

Marianne Means is a Washington, D.C., columnist with Hearst Newspapers. Copyright 2006 Hearst Newspapers.

© 1998-2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer


SOURCE:
Distorted View from Bush's Rabbit Hole

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