WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld unleashed yesterday one of the Bush administration's most caustic assaults yet on critics of the Iraq war, ramping up the Republican election-year attack against Democrats over national security.
The verbal broadside is part of an emerging pattern in which President Bush, attempting to transform the war into a winning election theme for his party, is using surrogates to deliver the most stinging criticisms of Democrats while sticking to milder - though no less disparaging - rhetoric himself.
Rumsfeld, speaking yesterday at the American Legion's annual convention in Salt Lake City, compared the president's war critics to Nazi-era appeasers. Warning against what he called "moral and intellectual confusion," Rumsfeld said that "some seem not to have learned history's lessons" as the nation confronts new threats. He did not mention any names.
"It seems that in some quarters, there is more of a focus on dividing our country than acting with unity against the gathering threats," Rumsfeld said.
His remarks came as Vice President Dick Cheney was accusing unnamed critics of "self-defeating pessimism," the second time in two days that he had used that description. This month, Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, said Democrats were "obstacles" to national security.
Bush has been quick to lash out at those who question his strategy in Iraq, but he couches his objections in the loftier terms of a statesman challenging critics of his global vision. He recently denounced Democrats' calls for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, but not before noting twice that they are "good, decent people." At a press conference last week, Bush said he would never question the patriotism of his critics.
Presidents often try to avoid appearing overly partisan in such situations. Analysts say Bush's approach is part of an orchestrated effort by Republicans: Attack Democrats on national security while keeping the president - whose low approval ratings could hurt his party's candidates this fall - from falling still lower in voters' estimation.
"It's a well-practiced strategy by past presidents - where tougher things are said by others and the more generous comments are made by the president," said John C. Fortier of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "It is meant to have the president portray to some extent the positives of the policy and to have surrogates show the negatives - in this case, of ignoring homeland security or being too much against the war and withdrawing too soon."
By arming others, such as Cheney, Rove and Ken Mehlman, the national party chairman, with cutting barbs and sending them into conservative strongholds, Republican strategists hope to stoke the enthusiasm of a conservative base that gives them high marks for keeping the country safe. That could help counter disaffection among Bush's core supporters - some of whom have been alienated by his immigration plan and the administration's willingness to approve large government programs and swollen spending measures.
Bush's allies also hope it sows doubt among fence-sitters about the Democrats' fitness to govern.
Bush is to speak tomorrow at the American Legion convention, where he is expected to repeat his broader message that the war in Iraq is inextricably linked to the fight against terrorism.
His top deputies have been crisscrossing the country delivering a harsher message. Cheney suggested this month that the primary victory of Ned Lamont, an anti-war Democrat, over Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a staunch supporter of Bush's Iraq policies, would "embolden al-Qaida types." A few days later, Rove warned Republican donors in Toledo, Ohio, that Democrats pose a threat to the nation's security.
"The problem for these Democrats is that their policies would have consequences and their policies would make us more, not less, vulnerable," Rove said, according to the Associated Press. "And in war, weakness emboldens your enemies and it's an invitation for disaster."
John C. Green, a University of Akron political scientist, called it "a campaign version of `good cop/bad cop,' with the president strongly defending his policies but going easy on the Democrats, while other administration figures take a tough line. The likely reason is that the White House wants to improve Bush's personal image but at the same time go after the Democrats politically - both useful things in an election year."
White House officials contend that Bush has always worked to maintain a civil tone in the debate about the Iraq war and isn't going to change that as he seeks to make it a key theme for voters in November.
"Some have a different view from the president, and that doesn't mean they don't love the country as much as he does. But it does set up a debate about the direction of our country as we fight a global war on terror," said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman.