Message to Dems: Get one

Even with Saddam's capture, Bush is still vulnerable on Iraq. But Democratic candidates must begin articulating why, before it's too late.

By Jeremy Heimans - Tim Dixon
Published December 17, 2003 11:52PM (EST)

With the capture of Saddam Hussein, the Democrats now stand at a critical juncture. Either they reframe the national debate about Iraq -- and fast -- or they face the same likely fate as Saddam: a spectacular public death timed to coincide with next year's election.

As Sen. John Kerry, with a straight face, reclaims his Achilles' heel ("I voted to hold Saddam accountable") and Sen. Joe Lieberman plays up Saddam's capture more than Bush himself has, the Democrats risk again making the terrible mistake of allowing the Bush administration to reframe the Iraq debate and the way in which voters judge the success of its policy.

Since early summer, the major Democratic presidential candidates -- from Howard Dean on down -- have been setting themselves up for a fall on Iraq even while stridently criticizing Bush. It was around this time that the major candidates coalesced around a fairly consistent message about Iraq as a "quagmire": The occupation has been a mess, the administration has bungled the diplomacy and postwar planning, and more international help is urgently needed to set things right.

This message might be accurate, and it has helped chip away at the president's popularity in recent months. But it leaves the Democrats badly exposed when, as was perfectly foreseeable, things started to look "better" in Iraq (as Saddam's capture suggests to most Americans), or when Americans simply tune out (witness forgotten Afghanistan).

In relying so heavily on this argument, the Democratic hopefuls have largely dropped the ball on other key messages that are essential to building the case against the administration's Iraq policy. Dean, in particular, who is not just scrambling to win the nomination but has begun to position himself for the general election, can't afford to wait until after the primaries to get his message on Iraq right.

The issue of whether the president lied to the American people about the reasons for going to war with Iraq, especially on the questions of imminent threat and the failure to find WMD, didn't even get a mention in Dean's Monday foreign policy speech in Los Angeles. Maybe Dean and the other major candidates just have short attention spans like the rest of us, or maybe they read some early polls that said Americans didn't much care if the president lied if it helped America's national security. But you need only glance across the Atlantic to see what some concerted scrutiny on this issue (from within your own party, no less, and a vigorous press) can do to a national leader. As many as two-thirds of Britons say they no longer trust Prime Minister Tony Blair, and he is widely considered damaged goods. Bush, meanwhile, is relatively unscathed by the failure to find WMD, successfully distracting the country with images of the search for lice in Saddam's unkempt hair.

Moreover, leaning too heavily on the argument that Bush has made a mess of our relationship with the world, as all the major candidates have been doing, is only going to make limited inroads. Even as the administration was badly botching its diplomacy in the spring, solid majorities remained in support of intervention in Iraq, mainly because Americans' fear of terrorism and WMD trumped any vague concerns about international legitimacy or the benefits of international cooperation. Paeans to multilateralism will soothe already-angry segments of the Democratic base, but that's about it.

So is it too late to reframe the national debate on Iraq? No -- just look at what the Bush administration has been doing ever since it "launched" the idea of intervention in Iraq around Labor Day last year. To recap: In the first phase, the administration said it wanted "regime change" -- a suitably vague formulation early on because in abstract terms it seemed difficult to disagree with. In the second phase, during the inspections process and attempts to get U.N. authorization for war, the drumbeat was "Saddam Hussein must be disarmed" because he posed a burning threat to America. After the war, as we know, the message shifted again. With no WMD and no proven links to terrorists, the new justification for the war is simply "the people of Iraq are better off now that Saddam Hussein has gone." This is a stunning realignment -- Bush has done what Bill Clinton never could, turning Republican voters into humanitarian interventionists, apparently prepared to spend over $160 billion saving the Iraqi people from human rights abuses.

At each stage, the major Democratic candidates (with the exception, largely, of Howard Dean) ceded the basic assumptions of the administration's argument and quibbled instead over the how, when or with whom. But by criticizing Bush at the margins, they allowed the national debate about invasion (considered a radical and far-fetched play as recently as mid-2002) to shift dramatically in the administration's favor. So the likes of Rep. Richard Gephardt put their hands up for regime change in the fall of 2002, but urged caution. And in the winter, Kerry, noted foreign policy expert, suddenly found himself agreeing with the administration that "disarming" Saddam by force was an urgent national security priority (though its urgency had never struck him before), but said we had to do it nicely, with our allies.

Dean, in contrast, understood in the lead-up to the war that ceding key assumptions in the debate would only help to shift the center of gravity toward Bush. Now, with the capture of Saddam, Dean (and any candidate seriously interested in winning the general election) must move to strengthen and broaden the case against the administration's Iraq policy.

The reason many Americans don't seem too concerned that the president misled them over the war is that they think he is still protecting them. To make the attack on the Iraq policy stick, Democrats will need to use the weapon Republicans have been using ever since 9/11 -- fear. Remember, Americans supported the war in Iraq on the basis of fear, because the president linked Iraq to terrorism. The fear of a major new terrorist attack matters to Americans far more than the suffering of the Iraqi people, our relationship with allies, or even relatively low-level American military casualties in Iraq, which the Republican National Committee's recent attack ad reflects.

To counter this, Democrats need a fear campaign of their own, but one grounded in the real risks the administration is creating. This should be based on the message that every day we mismanage Iraq we also rejuvenate al-Qaida, producing thousands of new recruits for future attacks. Dean and others make this point ("Our military campaign is only serving to strengthen [al-Qaida's] political argument," says Dean), but there is no immediacy to the argument, and it is still being played as a secondary, almost intellectual theme. Only when the message about al-Qaida recruitment sinks in will the broader critique of the botched occupation become immediately relevant to Americans.

Democrats must also find a way to make the failure to turn up evidence of WMD or links between Saddam and al-Qaida really damage the president. It is too late to simply remind voters that no weapons were found. Rather the issue needs to be used as a testimonial to the president's lack of integrity, and invoked on a variety of domestic and foreign policy issues as the election approaches.'s recent "Misleader" campaign on this issue was a good start, by vividly targeting the president's personal responsibility for his deceptions about Iraq. As Americans really start worrying about the risks of further terrorist attacks as a consequence of Iraq, they are also more likely to look with skepticism and outrage at his prewar claims about WMDs.

The Democratic nominee is going to need enough foresight to withstand the turn of events, and a memory longer than the last news cycle to mount an election-winning case against the administration on Iraq. As Saddam Court TV floods the airwaves next year, Howard Dean TV will need some pretty compelling programming to compete.

Jeremy Heimans

Jeremy Heimans is a Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he has been researching political communication.

MORE FROM Jeremy Heimans

Tim Dixon

Tim Dixon writes on political economy and is an attorney at the law firm Baker & McKenzie.


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2004 Elections George W. Bush Iraq War