Sunday, November 20, 2005

Is Bush Going Soft On Us . . . ?

Well now, this looks new at first glance:
BEIJING - After fiercely defending his Iraq policy across Asia, President Bush abruptly toned down his attack on war critics Sunday and said there was nothing unpatriotic about opposing his strategy.

"People should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Iraq," Bush said, three days after agreeing with Vice President Dick Cheney that the critics were "reprehensible."

The president also praised Rep. John Murtha (news, bio, voting record), D-Pa., as "a fine man" and a strong supporter of the military despite the congressman's call for troop withdrawal as soon as possible.
But does it represent a real shift in Bush's rhetorical strategy vis-a-vis the Iraq war? Steven Benen, guest-posting at Political Animal, seems to think so, but I'm not convinced. I don't think you'll find too much invective directed against domestic anti-war critics in Bush's public record; he tends to traffic more in diplomatic hedgework like this:
(1) "Some may disagree with my decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but all of us can agree that the world's terrorists have now made Iraq a central front in the war on terror," he said. "This mission isn't easy, and it will not be accomplished overnight." USA Today, 6/18/05
(2) "While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.", 11/11/05

(3) The president said he strongly supports Sheehan's right to protest. “She expressed her opinion. I disagree with it,” Bush said.

“I think immediate withdrawal from Iraq would be a mistake,” he said. “I think those who advocate immediate withdrawal from not only Iraq but the Middle East are advocating a policy that would weaken the United States.”, 8/23/05

(4) "Reasonable people can disagree about the conduct of the war, but it is irresponsible for Democrats to now claim that we misled them and the American people," Bush said in his prepared remarks. AP, 11/14/05
Truth is, Bush has rarely if ever spoken out harshly against Iraq war opponents himself (excluding those who have accused him of manipulating intelligence). He likes to save the rhetorical dirty work for others within the administration, such as Dick Cheney and Scott McClellan, and outside it, like the people who write for Powerline, Little Green Footballs, and We saw this same strategy last year with the anti-Kerry SBVFT ads that he famously failed to condemn.

By farming out his attack politics, Bush can keep his trademark image of clearheaded toughness spotless without suffering the backlash that comes from engaging in explicit partisan mudfights. Even now, he can rightfully claim that this latest celebration of dissent is a logical extension of his prior remarks on the subject. By extending an olive branch to the 60% of the country that disapproves of his handling of Iraq, he's acknowledging the necessity of broad public support for a successful second term. It's some of the strongest evidence we have to refute the administration's farcical claim that they pay no attention to poll numbers.