Speech elicits the predictable party responses

Politicians on both sides say Bush faces challenge winning over Americans

May 25, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Republicans and Democrats reacted along partisan lines last night to President Bush's address to the nation on Iraq, setting the stage for an intense campaign-season battle over Bush's Iraq policies.

Republicans rallied to support the president's stated vision for the coming months in Iraq, while Democrats complained that he added no new details to a fuzzy and perilous plan for securing Iraq and transferring sovereignty to the Iraqis.

With violence mounting, and new revelations emerging in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, senior Republicans acknowledged that the president faces an uphill battle to win public support - both at home and abroad - for his policy.

Bush "was at his best tonight in laying a foundation, upon which he has to build every week to sustain the support of the American people and the world in bringing freedom to Iraq," said Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Senior Democrats said Bush fell far short, in his 31-minute speech at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., of offering the detailed plan that is needed to answer pressing questions about the future of Iraq.

"I was extremely disappointed," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. "I heard a rationale, but no strategy. I didn't hear any of the important questions answered."

"He didn't level with the American people," Biden said.

Bush failed to detail, Biden said, what the Iraqi government's authority would be over U.S. forces, who would secure the new U.S. embassy in Iraq, or how he would convince other nations to help provide security during the transition to a fully sovereign Iraq.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who serves on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, said Bush "didn't tell us anything new tonight."

He "was mainly trying to make lemonade out of a lemon," Feinstein said through a spokesman, "but he left out the major ingredient: more troops to secure the borders, infrastructure and the Iraqi people."

Republican leaders defended Bush, saying his speech was straightforward and specific enough.

"The president's speech gave us the two things we needed most: an honest report on the present and a detailed plan for the future," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas said in a statement.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said the speech "was extremely helpful and comes at a critical time."

"The president's transformation plan not only empowers Iraqis to set their own destiny; it requires it," Graham said in a statement last night.

But even Bush's most enthusiastic supporters said he still faces a difficult challenge in convincing Americans and the world that the United States can help produce a democratic government in Iraq and then extricate itself from the country.

"He showed the American people that he's got a plan, he's got a blueprint, the blueprint has timelines and deadlines, and we're sticking to them," Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, told MSNBC.

"But those words will be played out in the media against a backdrop of these doggone prison pictures," said Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services panel. "It will be played against the backdrop of these explosions, and that's a very difficult thing to compete with."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said Americans would find neither comfort nor news in Bush's remarks.

"There is no strategy. There's no true endgame," Cummings said. "I think President Bush sees that his policies are hemorrhaging. The problem is ... he's talking loud but saying nothing."

John Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, was less critical of Bush's remarks than others in his party.

"The president laid out general principles tonight, most of which we've heard before. What's most important now is to turn these words into action by offering presidential leadership to the nation and to the world," Kerry said in a statement.

Hours before Bush's speech, Ralph Nader, the independent presidential candidate, reiterated his call for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year.

Bush's speech came at a pivotal time, with members of Congress back in their districts for a 10-day recess just as the summer campaign season hits full swing. Lawmakers are facing constituents who polls show are as jittery as they have ever been about the U.S. policy in Iraq.

Staff writer Kimberly A.C. Wilson contributed to this article.

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