The Republican National Committee's new 30-second spot trumpeting George W. Bush's "Strong and Principled Leadership," running in Iowa before Tuesday's presidential debate and then in New Hampshire, is a model of misdirection -- and it gives off the faint stench of desperation. (To view the ad, "Reality," click here.)
The ad aims to project confidence, and the impression of an administration unwavering in its mission. With ominous strings playing in the background, excerpts from Bush's last State of the Union speech are intercut with black-lettered legends on a white background. The title card that has generated the most attention states: "Some are now attacking the President for attacking the terrorists."
But, who, exactly is meant by "the terrorists"? Al-Qaida and the Taliban? Well, of the few people who criticized Bush for going into Afghanistan, none of the Democratic presidential contenders were among them. Just whom the ad is talking about is clear from the first clip of Bush, in which he says, "It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known." It's Iraq. But given the number of Democratic candidates who voted for the war, the question of just who's attacking Bush becomes even more muddy -- unless the ad is directed solely at Howard Dean.
But even then, there's no escaping that the ad relies on the canards about Iraq housing chemical and biological weapons, and having ties to al-Qaida. Even Bush has distanced himself from that last claim. But here it is again, courtesy of the RNC. As for the invocation of weapons of mass destruction, the ad suggests that Bush and Cheney are the right's Vladimir and Estragon, still waiting for Godot to turn up.
The real howler, though, comes in a later Bush excerpt: "Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike?"
The RNC better pray that the Democrats never decide to answer that question. The fact is that the attacks al-Qaida was mounting in the early '90s, particularly the simultaneous bombings of American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, evidenced al-Qaida's growing ability to carry out complex, synchronized attacks over hundreds of miles, and that the Republican-led Congress was much more interested in blow jobs than in blowback.
This ad is not going to change anyone's mind about Bush, neither supporters nor detractors. If the RNC had played strictly to Bush's immediate post-9/11 leadership, it might have been on firmer ground. To raise the already widely rejected link between 9/11 and Iraq suggests a real blunder. The ad is a glimpse of the themes the Republicans plan to use in the election. If the Democrats can't make hay of this, then their candidate might be left like Jon Lovitz as Mike Dukakis in the "SNL" sketch saying of another Bush, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."