If George W. Bush can persuade the public that he's really going to get tough with radical Islam, rhetoric can translate into November victories. But it's late and he's got a tired team, a rough road and it's a long way home.
He told the national convention of the American Legion yesterday in Salt Lake City that the Democrats who want to cut and run from peril in Iraq and the Middle East are begging for disaster.
He took pains to avoid painting an indiscriminate smear. "Many of these folks are sincere and they're patriotic but they could not be more wrong. If America were to pull out before Iraq could defend itself, the consequences would be absolutely predictable, and absolutely disastrous. We would be handing Iraq over to our worst enemies ... and al Qaeda terrorists from all over the world would suddenly have a base of operations far more valuable than Afghanistan under the Taliban."
This is boilerplate stuff. You could see the reporters traveling with the president reacting with boredom and scorn, an attempt to put the president in a pickler. "Even in Utah, which gave [Mr.] Bush a wider margin of victory than any other state in the 2004 election," reported the Associated Press, once the source for a cool, detached account, "the president's appearance was a source of dispute." Editorializing by raised eyebrow is endemic among the boys on the bus, and the president and his men (and women) rightly resist the temptation to scold scribes that Bill Safire once called (through the voice of Spiro Agnew) "the nattering nabobs of negativism."
The way to deal with it is with the consistent and unrelenting pounding of the message, not only by the president and his senior aides, but by the hundreds of Republican congressional candidates, many of whom will lose if they don't. They can't take a cafeteria approach, giving up red meat if they don't get an immediate response, moving on to tapioca pudding and lime Jell-0.
George W. seems to have learned his lesson for now. Pulling his punches and praising the religion of peace would be no more effective today than praising Shinto as a religion of peace and National Socialism as merely misguided politics would have worked for FDR and Harry S. Truman six decades ago. The president invoked those old national bigotries in his speech to the Legionnaires. "As veterans you have seen this kind of enemy before," he said of the Islamic radicals. "They are successors to [European] fascists, to Nazis, to Communists and other totalitarians of the 20th century. History shows what the outcome will be. This war will be difficult. This war will be long, and this war will end with the defeat of the terrorists."
What the Republicans have going for them is continuing public mistrust of the San Francisco Democrats, who are always eager to blame America first, offering to picnic with those who devoutly wish we were dead.
Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, warned South Carolinians yesterday of those risks. "The prospect of Nancy Pelosi bringing San Francisco values and a whole attitude on foreign policy, an attitude of weakness and appeasement and surrender, would be a disaster for the country." Mr. Gingrich knows how an appeal to fear and mistrust can make a speaker of the House, or even a prospective speaker, an effective campaign target.
Americans understand the threat of North Korean ICBMs with nuclear warheads, of the Iranian determination to arm themselves with nuclear weapons, of a fragile Pakistani dictatorship armed with 50 to 100 nuclear bombs already. Talking about this dangerous world is not exploitation and demagoguery, though the Democrats will attempt to make it so. The president must not retreat when the Democrats say boo.
His description of the terrorists a fortnight ago as "Islamic fascists" provoked the usual cry for smelling salts from those who sup on regrets and bean sprouts, but a growing number of Muslims now acknowledge that the threat from within Islam is real. "The sentiment of denial that came as a fever to the Muslim community after 9/11," says Muqtedar Khan, a political scientist at the University of Delaware, "is fading away." These are the Muslims the president's rhetoric can encourage as he stiffens the nation's resolve in the run-up to the November elections.