Howard Fineman made some interesting remarks last night on Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Yeah, I know, it’s Howard Fineman, but he did make some points. Really! Check out this truncated bit of the transcript, with obligatory “Democrats are just as bad” content removed:
OLBERMANN: Is it possible that weâ€˜re overstating how bad those poll numbers are for the president? Is there some silver lining in there that we have overlooked?
FINEMAN: I donâ€˜t think so. I was talking to a Republican today, a top strategist, who said, you know, he hasnâ€˜t seen numbers like this since heâ€˜s been in the game, which is quite some time. … whatâ€˜s happened to the president is that his numbers for honesty, honesty have crumbled, and just as important, his backing by the core Republican Party has begun to crumble as well.
So without the reputation for personal honesty and character, and without the hardcore support of his own Republicans, heâ€˜s in deep trouble, probably is glad heâ€˜s getting out of the country for a while.
OLBERMANN: The effort to get himself out of the deep trouble began, obviously, on Veterans Day, on Friday, in Pennsylvania, where Mr. Bush began this campaign to rehab his image by essentially accusing anybody who was critical of the war in Iraq or of how it started, or perhaps of even looking, investigating this question of prewar intelligence, of being deeply irresponsible.
We just heard tonight, in Alaska, he did exactly the same thing, used exactly the same analogies. Is there any indication yet that the strategy is working for him, either within his own party or within the public as a whole?
FINEMAN: No, I donâ€˜t think so. And the numbers are so bad now that theyâ€˜re not going to be turned around by that kind of thing.
But he has two additional problems. First of all, he accepted bipartisanship when the war was gearing up. But he didnâ€˜t really seek it out. He didnâ€˜t really make bipartisanship, the notion of politics ending at the waterâ€˜s edge, the hallmark of his policy. It was sort of my way or the highway. And, you know, a majority of the Democrats, not all Democrats, but a majority of the Democrats in the Senate went along.
The other part of the problem heâ€˜s got is, what heâ€˜s really implicitly saying is, We went to war for the wrong reason. But the Democrats made the same mistake I made.
So itâ€˜s a negative argument, not a positive argument. Not to mention the fact that heâ€˜s essentially accusing Democrats practically of disloyalty when he says that they are sending, quote, â€œmixed signalsâ€ to the troops. Thatâ€˜s one stop short of saying that theyâ€˜re undercutting the war effort.
OLBERMANN: That other key element to the strategy, theâ€”well, the Democrats also believed this. He even invoked John Kerryâ€˜s name last week, which makes Iraq sound not like Vietnam but like the Spanish-American War, Remember the â€œMaine,â€ and damn the torpedoes, and weâ€˜ll find out later if they really attacked us.
Is it smart to be debating your election opponent a year after you have won the election?
FINEMAN: … I think a better strategy for George W. Bush, rather than to pick a fight when heâ€˜s in this bad of a political position, is to look for some common ground.
But George Bush has never operated as a political leader, nor has his strategist, Karl Rove, by the search for common ground. Instead, theyâ€˜ve operated by division and accusation. And that is really going to, I think, dig them in deeper here. But that seems to be the policy theyâ€˜re pursuing.
OLBERMANN: Confound your enemies and entertain your friends by (INAUDIBLE), try to, trying to breach some sort of peace with the other side. It would be at least a novel approach.
I honestly believe that if Bush could get out of his “Oh, yeah? Well, you stink worse” mode and try to work with Congress, including Democratic members, to create a real exit strategy with authentic bipartisan support, I think Bush’s poll numbers might stop falling. They might even go back up a tad. I think lots of fallen-away Bush supporters would rally to him if he could show he is bringing order out of chaos. I emphasize that for this to work he’s got to produce tangible results that people can see, particularly a substantial reduction in violence.
But instead what we get with Bush are glib phrases (e.g., as they stand up we’ll stand down) and empty promises that after (Saddam is captured; sovereignty is transferred; elections are held) everything will get better.
The benchmarks pass, and it’s not getting better.
Instead Bush’s Iraq policy is just drifting along, directionless, and I think people are realizing that. (This is something I want to write about in more detail in a future post, but for examples I recommend “Why Iraq Has No Army” by James Fallows in the current edition of Atlantic Monthly. Unfortunately if you are not a subscriber you’ll probably have to buy a copy. But Fallows’s latest entry at The Huffington Post is really good, too, and you can read that online.)
Congress is stepping into the leadership void that Bush refuses to fill. For example, Bloomberg reports:
Nov. 14 (Bloomberg) — The U.S. Senate opened debate today on measures that would put the chamber on record for the first time asking President George W. Bush to set limits for keeping American troops in Iraq.
The Bush administration “needs to explain to Congress and the American people its strategy for the successful completion of the mission,” say resolutions introduced separately by both Republicans and Democrats.
Both parties also would require that Iraq’s rival political factions be told they must make the compromises necessary to achieve a stable government, united against the insurgency, which will allow U.S. troops to leave.
[Update: for today’s developments, click here.]
Bush probably doesn’t like Congress stepping on what he sees as his turf. But if he would step up, I ‘spect Congress would step down.
Instead we get division and accusation, because that’s all we ever get from Bush. And apparently he doesn’t know any other way to “lead.”
For more of Bush’s “my way or the highway” mode, see today’s E.J. Dionne column.
Update: See also today’s Dan Froomkin column.