George W. Bush
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
President Bush speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 10/25/2006 3:23:33 PM ET 2006-10-25T19:23:33

Will President Bush’s ‘don’t lose hope’ message on Iraq at his Wednesday morning press conference bolster Republican morale and help his party keep control of the House and Senate?

Although Iraqi lives and American national security are at stake in what’s happening on the streets of Baghdad, there also happens to be a midterm election in less than two weeks, so Bush’s words have Election Day resonance.

“We cannot allow our dissatisfaction to turn into disillusionment about our purpose in this war,” the president warned. “We must not fall prey to the sophisticated propaganda by the enemy who is trying to undermine our confidence and make us believe that our presence in Iraq is the cause of all its problems.”

But Bush and Republican candidates on Nov. 7 must also grapple with another question: Even if the American presence in Iraq isn’t the cause of all its problems, is the U.S. presence there doing any measurable good?

Unease in GOP ranks
Bush is battling not only the insurgents, but those in the ranks of his own party who, on the brink of the election, voice something close to despondency about the Iraq muddle. Video: Bush acknowledges public discontent

“We’re on the verge of chaos, and the current plan is not working,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Monday.

But the current Iraqi government has Bush and his Republican supporters in a kind of political hostage dilemma. The president has made the judgment that he can not pull U.S. troops from Iraq any time soon, for fear of ceding the country to terrorists.

Nor can Bush replace Iraqi Prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and his colleagues in hopes of finding a more vigorous government.

A primary point of the Iraq operation is that the infant democracy is intended to be a model for the Arab world, a replacement for autocratic regimes that, according to Bush, bred terrorists like Mohammad Atta.

“Above and beyond toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and dismantling its deadly weapons, the driving motivation of a new American endeavor in Iraq and in neighboring Arab lands should be modernizing the Arab world,” said Johns Hopkins University Arab expert Fouad Ajami in January of 2003, shortly before Bush ordered the invasion.

Ajami was a prominent invasion supporter, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July of 2002 that once the United States troops got to Basra and Baghdad, “we shall be mobbed when we go there by people who are eager for deliverance from the tyranny and the great big prison of Saddam Hussein.”

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The Iraqis have been delivered from that prison, but now are free to wreak assassination and revenge on each other.

Bush backs Maliki
Unfortunately for Bush, Maliki’s government is not yet capable of stopping that violence. Bush said Wednesday, “I do believe Prime Minister Maliki is the right man to achieve the goal in Iraq.” He added, “I like his spirit, I like his attitude.”

Video: Bush on adjusting tactics He also told reporters, as he has often before, “I believe we will succeed. I know we’re not going to succeed, however, if we set artificial timetables for withdrawal.”

But one reporter asked a question Bush never explicitly answered: What if Maliki doesn’t meet the benchmarks for imposing order and creating national unity?

The president did say, “Americans have no intention of taking sides in a sectarian struggle or standing in the cross fire between rival factions.”

He reported that, “we’re pressing Iraq’s leaders to take bold measures to save their country. We're making it clear that America’s patience is not unlimited.”

But he tempered that warning by saying “We will not put more pressure on the Iraqi government than it can bear.”

A timely message from Bill Clinton
In an uncanny bit of timing, Bush’s press conference came just one hour after an e-mail from his predecessor had landed in Democrats’ e-mail in boxes.

In a fundraising pitch for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Bill Clinton said Bush had “left the United States isolated around the world when we should be leading it instead.”

Clinton exulted that, “Democrats have already won the battle of ideas. By a large majority, Americans are ready for a change. …. We can take back the Senate and move America forward.”

He added, “Opportunities like this one come once in a lifetime. The far-right wing that is running the Republican Party has never been more vulnerable.”

That may be equal parts hope, hype and shrewd analysis.

Certainly almost all the current polling data suggests that Democrats are poised to pick up several seats in the House and Senate, perhaps enough seats to gain the majority in both chambers.

And the worse Iraq seems to get — or at least the worse the images and perceptions here in the United States —the better election prospects look for the Democrats.

As of Tuesday morning, there had been 2,796 Americans killed in Iraq and 21,000 wounded in action.

Pessimism in polling data
According to the Oct. 20-22 Gallup Poll, 64 percent of Americans believe that things are going badly for the United States in Iraq. Even 40 percent of self-identified Republicans voice such pessimism.

According to Gallup, 54 percent of those interviewed favor withdrawal of American troops from Iraq either immediately or within 12 months.

Bush’s 37 percent approval rating, as measured by Gallup, is now a bit lower than President Truman’s was in October of 1950, right before his party lost 28 seats in the House and five in the Senate.

That 1950 midterm election occurred as American soldiers slogged through battles on the Korean peninsula with little prospect of victory.

Bush’s approval rating is also slightly lower than President Lyndon Johnson’s was in October 1966, right before a midterm election in which Johnson’s Democrats lost 47 House seats and four in the Senate .

Contrarian and perhaps cocky
For reporters looking for indicators of despair in Bush’s face or demeanor, the president offered the contrarian and perhaps cocky prediction that Republicans will keep their congressional majorities.

He mocked the Democrats for premature celebration.

“I believe I’ll be working with a Republican-controlled congress and a Republican-controlled Senate” after Nov. 7, he said.

Democrats he said, are already “dancing in the end zone…measuring the drapes.”

That’s why his words toward the start of his press conference seemed directed as much to GOP activists as to the American people in general: “We cannot allow our dissatisfaction to turn into disillusionment…”

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