George W. Bush referred to the attacks of Sept. 11th six times in his speech on Iraq Tuesday night. Weapons of mass destruction? He didn’t mention them once.
What the president said about 9/11 wasn’t false, exactly; White House speechwriters are better than that. The president talked about the war that “reached our shores” on 9/11, the speech that he gave after 9/11, the Americans who died on 9/11, the “lessons” that we learned from 9/11, the way that the terrorists tried to “shake our will” on 9/11 and, once again, the speech that he gave after 9/11.
Bush didn’t say Tuesday night that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with 9/11, but he didn’t have to, either. His administration has spread that phony story so many times before — sometimes explicitly, more often through the sort of guilt-by-association game the president played at Fort Bragg — that the president’s supporters have long since internalized it. A study released in October by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that “a large majority of Bush supporters believes that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaida and that clear evidence of this support has been found. A large majority believes that most experts also have this view, and a substantial majority believe that this was the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission.”
The problem for the president heading into Tuesday night’s speech: At least some of those Bush supporters aren’t Bush supporters anymore. The president won re-election in November with a little under 51 percent of the vote. But according to the latest Gallup Poll, only 45 percent of the public approves of Bush’s job performance now — and even fewer, just 40 percent, approve of the way he’s handling the war in Iraq.
Bush needs those supporters back. Without them, his poll numbers make him look like some sort of disgraced lame duck, and Republicans like John McCain and Chuck Hagel and Lindsey Graham and Walter Jones feel not only free but maybe compelled to put some distance between themselves and the president. Bush doesn’t need to get his approval ratings back to the stratospheric levels he enjoyed just after 9/11, but he’s got to get them back to the 50-50 range that got him re-elected. The Bush team knows how to maneuver there: Claim a mandate, ram whatever you need through Congress, and marginalize anyone who dares to disagree. With a 53 percent disapproval rating, that dog won’t hunt, at least not without a lot of gnats nipping at its knees.
So yes, Harry Reid, all those references to 9/11 did remind us that Osama bin Laden is still on the loose and that al-Qaida still has the capacity to strike the United States. But Bush wasn’t speaking to us Tuesday night, and he wasn’t speaking to you, either. He was reminding his own supporters of what they already believe: Saddam Hussein’s fingerprints were all over 9/11, and Iraq was the central front in the war on terror long before the president’s failed policies turned that country into the terrorist training ground that it is today.
Bush needs those supporters now, and he needs to get them back to the place where they think that anyone who disagrees with them is both out-of-touch and un-American. Karl Rove started that process last week in New York when he reminded Republicans that there are sides to be taken in America. With his speech in Fort Bragg Tuesday night — with all those invocations of 9/11 and the Pavlovian response he’s hoping to get — George W. Bush did what he could to get Republicans back on his.