Now, let's work to get unstuck

November 07, 2006|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- No wonder President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, show so much contempt for each other. They have so much in common.

Both went to Yale. Both belonged to the elite Skull and Bones. Both have political candidates in their own parties quickly running away from them.

Mr. Kerry had to cancel campaign trips after he famously "botched" a joke intended to jab Mr. Bush. He meant to say that people who don't succeed in school "get us stuck in Iraq." Instead, he omitted the "us" and said "get stuck in Iraq," making it sound like he was ridiculing U.S. troops who, sad to say, are stuck in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush, who has gotten us stuck in Iraq, was campaigning in reliably red states because almost no Republican candidates in close contests wanted to be seen with him. Instead, those GOP candidates have been seen with Mr. Bush in ads sponsored by Democrats.

Leave it to the irony-challenged Mr. Kerry to step in and clumsily offer himself up as red meat to hungry and dejected Republican voters. And, judging by the Democrats' reactions, Mr. Kerry's gaffe wiped out his chances for the 2008 presidential run, which he has been considering. He reminded too many Democrats of what they didn't like about Mr. Kerry in 2004. He sounded arrogant, snooty, entitled and politically tone-deaf - like the proverbial liberal who loves "the public" but doesn't care much for people.

Yet, Mr. Kerry's woes offered only a couple of days' worth of distraction from Mr. Bush's woes. The president's job approval rating remained at 34 percent, in the final CBS News/New York Times poll before this week's elections, which was 28 points lower than Mr. Bush's approvals on the eve of the 2002 midterms.

Worse for Mr. Bush, that same poll found almost 7 in 10 voters felt Mr. Bush "does not have a plan for Iraq."

Mr. Bush contributed to that impression when he recently abandoned his "stay-the-course" mantra like a reptile shedding old skin. "We've never been `stay the course,' George!" he told his host during an Oct. 22 interview on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

Faster than you can say "gotcha," Democrats posted at least a half-dozen video sound bites online of Mr. Bush vowing to "stay the course" in recent months. Pesky things, those video recordings.

Still, when you've only got one card, you play it for all it's worth. So, when Mr. Bush preached mostly to the converted at campaign rallies, he played his old, reliable "cut-and-run" card against the Dems. "The Democrat goal is to get out of Iraq," Mr. Bush told a cheering crowd at a recent Republican rally in Georgia. "The Republican goal is to win in Iraq."

Of course, both parties want to win in Iraq. Contrary to Mr. Bush's smear of Democrats as the "cut-and-run" party, House and Senate leaders have proposed a variety of plans, including a phased redeployment of our troops, as Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania has outlined, and possible partitioning of Iraq, as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has suggested.

Both ideas may well appear in the plan that the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a longtime friend of both Presidents Bush, is scheduled to propose after the midterm elections. No one has an easy answer to the growing chaos in Iraq, but there are alternatives.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems to have lost sight of what winning means. Mr. Bush has shed his "stay-the-course" slogan yet curiously stays with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.

In an interview with wire service reporters in the White House, Mr. Bush said both are "doing fantastic jobs, and I strongly support them."

Memo to Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney: Start worrying. The last person to receive such a ringing endorsement from Mr. Bush was then-Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown, for "doing a heck of a job" in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath.

There's no question that we're "stuck in Iraq," as Mr. Kerry quipped. But the nation now needs to see grown-ups in both parties get together, once they have licked their post-Election Day wounds, and find ways to help Iraqis regain self-governance and help America get unstuck.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

Trudy Rubin is on vacation.

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