updated 10/25/2006 2:56:41 PM ET 2006-10-25T18:56:41

Remember Al Gore’s mysterious “lock box?” Well, I have a new item to nominate for the Museum of Inert Campaign Rhetoric: “Benchmarks.” The president says that they are the keys to victory in Iraq. But if I’m a struggling Republican candidate — buffeted by winds of anger and confusion over the war — I’m not sure “benchmarks” will insure MY victory on Nov. 7.

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The Iraq war is all but overwhelming every other topic on the table right now, which is why George Bush took the mid-term election campaign to a  press conference in the East Room. He had two goals. One was to concede the obvious: that, though “farmers are farming” and commerce is expanding, Iraq is a bloody mess. The second goal: to assure voters that he has a plan to win.

So let me see if I understand the plan. He’s not for “staying the course,” of course, which would be head-in-the-sand and Captain Queeg-like, given how “tough” the situation is.

On the other hand, we dare not “cut and run,” for that would mean our defeat. Nor can we even set “artificial timetables” for withdrawal, for that would lead to our defeat, too. (Left often, I suppose, is the possibility that some REAL timetables would be okay.)

The only way to achieve victory in Iraq is to set “benchmarks” for the new Iraqi government to meet (a better army, an end to sectarian violence, an equitable distribution of oil revenue, etc.). That said, we can’t unilaterally impose those “benchmarks,” because Iraq is a sovereign nation. On the other hand, our patience is not “unlimited,” and it could reach its limit if the Iraq government doesn’t make “tough decisions.” In any case, “Americans can have confidence that we will prevail.”

Got that?

The president claimed to like campaigning. I know him well enough to know that the statement is half true. He enjoys it only in comparison with the job of answering questions at a press conference. He believes strongly — and that is not a strong enough word — in the Iraq mission, and in his larger vision of how to fight the war on terror. But having to convince the voters is not his favorite part of the job. It’s just that the pictures Americans keep seeing on their TV screens of blood and carnage demand that he put the war “in context” — at least that is what the Republican advisors and hangers-on were telling him.

So there he was in the East Room, not enjoying himself. Displeasure at the task was written all over his open-book face in the dutiful first half hour: the grim smirk which says: do-I-really-have-to-put-up-with-this from these people?

The president argued that we can’t afford to lose the global war on terror, and few voters would disagree. But most now think that Iraq is making the world-wide situation worse, and they are pessimistic about the chances that things will turnout there. They don’t want to “cut and run” in Iraq, either. They aren’t in agreement on WHAT to do, other than that we need to stop doing what we are doing now.

And in vowing to be “flexible,” the president needed to do more than to talk about “benchmarks.” In some ways, he dug himself deeper into a political hole. He stoutly defended Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for example. That was an admirable display of personal loyalty, but an electoral mistake: an overwhelming majority of the American public wants Rummy out.

The president also indicated that, in the short run, the United States might have to put MORE troops into Iraq. And he declined to shut the door on the idea of permanent military bases in Iraq, even after “victory” is achieved.

In the manner of Harry Truman, Bush proudly pointed to himself and told the voters to hold him accountable for the war and its consequences. But he isn’t on the ballot next month — a whole party full of frightened candidates is.

I doubt that the White House switchboard is flooded with their thank you calls.

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