Iraq is key for voters

August 20, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- For most of this election year, the public opinion polls had been indicating that two issues -- the war in Iraq and the economy at home -- were uppermost in voters' concerns. And early signs of an economic recovery were fueling Bush campaign hopes that it would be a political life preserver for the president.

But with slippage on the economic front, more confusing fighting in Iraq and the steady drumbeat of a few more American deaths nearly every day, the pendulum appears to be swinging strongly to the war as the factor likely to decide the November election.

The latest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds that 41 percent of the 1,512 adults interviewed say the wars in Iraq and against terrorism are the most important issues facing the country; only 26 percent cite economic issues.

This, certainly, is how it should be, in light of the Bush administration's radical departure from the course of multilateral, collective security that served the United States so well through the half-century of the Cold War.

As the president's grandiose plans to democratize the Middle East have run afoul of regional realities, his hopes of riding his self-proclaimed role as a "wartime president" to easy re-election have been imperiled. Polls reflect a gradual public recognition that he has been the architect of, or at least has acquiesced in, a botched military and diplomatic adventure.

The hurried veneer of a political power transfer to Iraqis, enabling the administration to duck the ugly label of occupier, was supposed to take much of the heat off the American presence. But the Pew survey finds that 52 percent of Americans surveyed now disapprove of Mr. Bush's Iraq policy. Another 58 percent say he has no "clear plan" for achieving his goals there and getting out.

Increasingly, Mr. Bush's role as commander in chief, the strongest political card in his hand since Sept. 11, has come into question, and much of the presidential campaign now revolves on one question: Does Democratic nominee John Kerry have the stuff to take over that role?

In the political environment of Anbody But Bush, Mr. Kerry's campaign has become largely an effort to persuade voters that he does. And Mr. Bush's campaign, augmented by independent spending groups, has likewise focused on persuading the same voters that he doesn't.

Exhibit A for the Kerry campaign was the Democratic convention at which retired military leaders headed by former Gen. Wesley K. Clark were paraded out, along with Mr. Kerry's Vietnam War combat buddies, to attest to his leadership bona fides. The Bush campaign has countered with jabs from the president and Vice President Dick Cheney at Mr. Kerry's alleged flip-flops on the war in Iraq.

Such exchanges are fair enough. But the argument now, through television ads by supposedly unaffiliated groups, has descended into attacks over the relative Vietnam-era service of Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush. A group that calls itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth questions Mr. Kerry's right to the Bronze Star he received in commanding his own Swift boat. And a pro-Kerry group, MoveOn.org, has aired an ad questioning Mr. Bush's Air National Guard service during the Vietnam War.

Republican Sen. John McCain, himself a decorated Vietnam veteran who supports Mr. Bush's re-election but is a Kerry friend, has called on the Swift boat veterans to desist. But the Bush campaign itself, saying it has no control in the matter, has not. Mr. Kerry has asked MoveOn.org to pull its anti-Bush ad.

None of this ancient history, or ancient fiction, on Vietnam War service has much, if anyThing, to do with the war still going on in Iraq, which voters say tops their concern today. Both sides, and especially their well-heeled "independent" supporters, would better serve the public interest by focusing on their own solutions to the mess that is the byproduct of the president's war of choice in Iraq.

Let's hope that by the time Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry debate in the fall, they will dispense with the sideshows and deal with the new American foreign policy with the seriousness the issue deserves.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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