The Democrats’ message machine was synchronized and in high gear this week with party leaders attacking what they called President Bush’s “incompetence” and “mismanagement” of the effort in Iraq.
The newly coordinated message comes at the same moment that Democrats in Washington voice a growing confidence that not only will presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry beat Bush on Nov. 2 but that Democrats will regain control of the Senate.
From House Leader Nancy Pelosi to Senate Democratic campaign Chairman Sen. Jon Corzine to would-be Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, Democrats have been using the same theme in the past few days — “incompetence” — to pound away at a beleaguered Bush.
The change in tone among Democrats has been remarkable.
Just a few weeks ago, Democratic activists from California to New Hampshire were wringing their hands in despair over what they saw as Kerry’s failure to tell voters in plain language why they should elect him rather than Bush.
But this week in Washington, Democrats — based partly on polling and focus groups, partly on instinct — have refined their message down to the charges of “incompetence” and “mismanagement.”
Corzine, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Democrats would regain control of the Senate if the election were held next Tuesday and forecast that they will have a 52-48 majority once votes are counted in November.
The major reason, according to Corzine: "People have been deeply disturbed by the mismanagement they see" of the Iraq effort.
Corzine said voters were coming to a realization of what he called the “incompetence” of the Bush administration.
Less than 24 hours later, Pelosi echoed Corzine, assailing Bush for “incompetence in terms of knowledge, judgment and experience.”
'Moral high ground' lost?
The Abu Ghraib prison abuse furor, Corzine indicated, is benefiting the Democrats because it has put voters in a queasy mood.
"There's a feeling America has lost something, ... lost its moral high ground,” Corzine said. “People lay the responsibility on those in charge" — by which Corzine meant Bush and Republicans in Congress.
In speeches Thursday, two top Democratic foreign policy thinkers, Holbrooke, who served as ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton, and House Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Jane Harman, made the case that Kerry and the Democrats could run foreign policy more competently than Bush.
“Democrats have better ideas,” said Harman, citing the proposal to put all U.S. intelligence agencies under one director of national intelligence.
Portraying Bush and his aides as pursuing a utopian, “dreaming” foreign policy, Harman said, “Democrats are much more practical.”
She later told MSNBC.com, “Competence and leadership will be key tests of whether to renew the presidency of George Bush or to replace him. There are some major competency issues across the board with respect to postwar planning in Iraq.”
Some of the Democratic analysis tipped over into gloating over the misfortunes of the Bush adminstration, with Holbrooke, for instance, describing how Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz looked "shattered" during his testimony this week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Is Kerry more competent?
Harman and Holbrooke marshaled their evidence to try to persuade voters that Kerry would be a more capable commander-in-chief than Bush.
“The Bush presidency focuses on the use of force,” Harman said. “They don’t focus on other tools in the toolkit. John Kerry has a bigger menu. He’s been in favor of building large, effective international coalitions.”
Kerry is smarter, more widely traveled around the globe, and better read than Bush, she contended.
“You have to read books, you have to know world leaders, you have to think about these issues — not just delegate to others who do that,” she said.
Kerry, said Holbrooke, “will be the most knowledgeable president coming into office in a long time and matched only in terms of prior experience — this is ironic to list these two people — only by (Richard) Nixon and George Bush Sr.”
Kerry has “lived overseas, has been on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 18 years, (and) knows the international community,” Holbrooke said.
It is not clear if voters in battleground states such as Missouri and West Virginia will be impressed by such globe-trotting credentials.
Unlike Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 or even former NATO commander Wesley Clark, who vied with Kerry for the Democratic nomination, Kerry has never commanded a large-scale military operation.
But if news from Iraq continues to be discouraging, the election might end up hinging on a fairly low threshold test: whether voters think "he can’t possibly do any worse than Bush has done in Iraq."
At week’s end, one thing seemed certain: Democrats’ confidence was growing as the news from Iraq continued gloomy.
And, apparently hoping for further evidence of Bush “incompetence,” Democrats were setting the bar high for any Bush foreign policy initiatives in the next few months.
Referring to Bush’s trip to meet with NATO leaders in Turkey at the end of June and chances of getting a formal NATO role in stabilizing Iraq, Holbrooke said, “If he doesn’t get something at Istanbul, I’d say he’s failed yet again. At a minimum he needs to get a NATO statement of readiness to support this whole (Iraq stabilization) process.”