By Editor-in-chief
updated 12/8/2006 8:17:01 AM ET 2006-12-08T13:17:01
ANALYSIS

“No, sir.”

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With those two words, incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates triggered a rare burst of honesty, accountability and civility in Washington this week.

If there is a “values debate” in this country, it’s the one centered on these and other leadership traits that Americans yearn to see returned to politics and every pocket of their society. And so it was striking when a U.S. senator, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, asked a simple question and received an honest answer.

Levin: “Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are winning the war in Iraq?”

Gates: “No, sir.” 

While the answer easily squares with the facts on the ground in Iraq, it was a direct contradiction to the cheery talking points issued by President Bush during the midterm election campaign. “Absolutely, we’re winning,” the commander in chief said Oct. 25.

Bush’s view of the world also was contradicted by the Iraq Study Group, which began its report to the president with eight unvarnished words: “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.” The report contained no vows of victory, visions of democracy or talk of Iraq’s central role in the war on terror – standards from Bush’s campaign playbook.

The report is a model of accountability, filled with details about how the administration bungled Iraq. For example, just six of the 1,000 people in the U.S. embassy at Baghdad can speak fluent Arabic, the report says. It also reports that the military counted 93 acts of violence in one day in July, when the panel’s review found 1,100 acts of violence. “Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes discrepancy with policy goals,” the report says.

The panel did not spare Congress. It says costs for the war should be part of the annual budget, not emergency supplemental funds. Critics of the status quo, including some GOP lawmakers, have long argued that the supplemental shortcut exposes spending bills to waste and fraud. Some panel members accused Congress of forsaking its oversight role altogether during the Iraq war.

In a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday, the president called the situation in Iraq “unsettling,” a few steps short of the panel’s “grave” assessment. Challenged by a reporter to explain his less-severe view, Bush bristled: “It’s bad in Iraq. That help?”

The public has lost faith in Bush. Six in 10 voters called him trustworthy during his first term; now barely 40 percent say they trust their president, according to Pew Research Center polling. Just as dramatic is the decline in voters who believe Bush can get things done – 68 percent in September 2003 to 42 percent in August 2006, according to Pew.

The leadership gap doesn’t stop at the White House. Approval ratings for Congress are no better than Bush’s marks, and a wide range of polls show steep declines in the public’s faith in state and local politicians, as well as businesses, church and even school leaders. People are tired of lies and spin; they want their leaders to get things done.

“This is a week in which the public has heard things from officials in Washington that are very different from what they have heard from Official Washington,” said Andy Kohut, chief pollster for Pew.

Not only did people hear blunt assessments about Iraq, but they heard it from a panel of Democrats and Republicans who put aside their differences to seek solutions. In an era of polarization, the process that led to the report might be more impressive than the document itself. “This is the only bipartisan advice you’re going to get,” the Democratic chairman of the panel, Lee Hamilton, told Bush.

The panel member argued in private over a number of issues, but emerged united. Panel member Vernon Jordan, a confidant of former President Clinton, said the level of debate reminded him of better times in Washington.

“Nobody was storming out of the room, nobody was screaming at anybody,” said the man who got caught up in one of history’s most polarizing political events, the impeachment of former President Clinton. “What I have seen over the years is civility taking a back seat and giving way to hostility…. The good of this report is that civility has been rediscovered.”

Kohut said he is polling this week to determine whether Americans liked what they saw in Washington this week. “Certainly, they took notice,” he said. But will they believe what they saw? Were this week’s events the first of a trend, or a brief aberration?

“I’ve heard all the bitching and whining and moaning now for months that we could never do anything in America in a bipartisan way, too much savagery, can’t get it done on the issues that confront us – immigration, Iraq, Social Security,” said panel member Alan Simpson, a former GOP senator from Wyoming. “Well, gang, 10 of us got together and in goodwill, and good faith, and with friendship involved, too, put something to the American people.”

“They can do whatever they want with it. We’re going home,” Simpson said. “Let them rip.”

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