IF you had to put a date on when the Iraq war did in the Bush administration, it would be late summer 2005. That’s when the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina re-enacted the White House bungling of the war, this time with Americans as the principal victims. The stuff happening on Brownie’s watch in New Orleans was recognizably the same stuff that had happened on Donald Rumsfeld’s watch in Baghdad. Television viewers connected the dots and the president’s poll numbers fell into the 30s. There they have largely remained — at least until Friday, when the latest New York Times-CBS News Poll put him at 29.
Now this pattern is repeating itself: a searing re-enactment of the Iraq war’s lethal mismanagement is playing out on the home front, again with potentially grave political consequences. The Washington Post’s exposé of the squalor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center — where some of our most grievously wounded troops were treated less like patients than detainees — has kicked off the same spiral of high-level lying and blame-shifting that followed FEMA’s Katrina disasters.
Just as the debacle on the gulf was a call to arms for NBC’s Brian Williams and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, so the former ABC anchor Bob Woodruff has returned from his own near-death experience in Iraq to champion wounded troops let down by their government. And not just at Walter Reed. His powerful ABC News special last week unearthed both a systemic national breakdown in veterans’ medical care and a cover-up. The Veterans Affairs Department keeps “two sets of books” — one telling the public that the official count of nonfatal battlefield casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan stands at 23,000, the other showing an actual patient count of 205,000. Why the discrepancy? A new Brownie — Jim Nicholson, the former Republican National Committee hack whom President Bush installed as veterans affairs secretary — tells Mr. Woodruff “a lot of them come in for dental problems.”
Yet 2007 is not 2005, and little more damage can be inflicted on the lame-duck Bush White House. The long-running Iraq catastrophe is now poised to mow down a second generation of political prey: presidential hopefuls who might have strongly challenged Bush war policy when it counted and didn’t. That list starts with the candidates long regarded as their parties’ 2008 favorites, John McCain and Hillary Clinton.
Senator McCain, who, unlike Senator Clinton, fervently supports the war and the surge, is morbidly aware of his predicament. This once-ebullient politician has been off his game since a conspicuously listless January “Meet the Press” appearance; on Thursday, he had to publicly apologize after telling David Letterman, in an unguarded moment of genuine straight talk, that American lives were being “wasted” in Iraq. (Barack Obama had already spoken the same truth and given the same pro forma apology.) Last week a Washington Post-ABC News Poll confirmed Mr. McCain’s worst political fears. Rudy Giuliani now leads him two to one among Republicans, a tripling of Mr. Giuliani’s lead in a single month.
Mr. Giuliani is also a war supporter and even contributed a Brownie of his own to the fiasco, the now disgraced Bernard Kerik, who helped botch the training of the Iraqi police. But, unlike Mr. McCain, Mr. Giuliani isn’t dogged by questions about Iraq. To voters, his war history begins and ends with the war against the enemy that actually attacked America on 9/11. He wasn’t a cheerleader for the subsequent detour into Iraq, wasn’t in office once the war started, and actively avoids speaking about it in any detail.
What makes Mr. Giuliani’s rise particularly startling is that his liberal views and messy personal history are thought to make him a nonstarter with his own party faithful. These handicaps haven’t kicked in, the Beltway explanation has it, because benighted Republican voters don’t yet really know that “America’s mayor” once married a cousin or that he describes himself as “pro-choice.” But perhaps these voters aren’t as ignorant as Washington thinks. After the flameouts of Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Rick Santorum, Ralph Reed and other Bible-thumping politicos who threw themselves on the altars of Terri Schiavo or Jack Abramoff, maybe most Republicans could use a rest from the moral brigade. Maybe these voters, too, care more about the right to life of troops thrust into an Iraqi civil war than that of discarded embryos used in stem-cell research.
The same cultural dynamic is playing out among Democrats, though Mrs. Clinton doesn’t seem to know it. Her poll numbers, too, are showing erosion — some of it because of Mr. Obama’s growing profile among African-Americans, but some of it (in a Time survey) after her dust-up with the Hollywood tycoon David Geffen. Most Washington hands declared Mrs. Clinton the winner in that spat because she had forced Mr. Obama off his high horse of “hope.” But there’s no evidence to support this theory. In the real world, most Americans don’t know who Mr. Geffen is. There wasn’t even any video of him to run on “Hardball,” where the Clinton campaign spokesman’s Jim Cramer-esque hyperbole made him look threatened by Mr. Obama’s rising popularity.
The most revealing aspect of the incident was not in any case the who’s-up-who’s-down prognostications for a primary process some 10 months away. Rather, it was the fervor with which the Clinton campaign accused Mr. Geffen and Mr. Obama of practicing “the politics of personal destruction.” This over-the-top reaction seemed detached from reality, almost as if the Clinton camp were nostalgically wishing it could refight the last political war — and once again clobber repellent old impeachment nemeses. But that battle may not be in the offing. Anti-Clinton rage has cooled, and the Clinton hating industry ain’t what it used to be. As The Times reported last month, even Richard Mellon Scaife, who bankrolled much of the vast right-wing conspiracy, has moved on. As with Mr. Giuliani’s marital history, any scandalous new revelation about the Clintons’ private lives might play out less momentously in post-9/11 America than it did in the last century.
You can’t blame the Clinton campaign for praying it had Kenneth Starr and The American Spectator to kick around again. It would be easier to fight that war than confront the one in Iraq. Far easier. Senator Clinton’s words about the war still don’t parse. When I made this point previously, a Clinton ally phoned to say that whatever the senator’s Iraq statements, she is an exceptionally smart and capable leader by any presidential standard. I agree, and besides, Iraq isn’t the only issue in 2008. But Iraq will overshadow every candidate and every other subject as long as the war grinds gruesomely on, whether in Baghdad or at a V.A. hospital.
The issue is not that Mrs. Clinton voted for the war authorization in 2002 or that she refuses to call it a mistake in 2007. Those are footnotes. The larger issue is judgment, then and now. Take her most persistent current formulation on Iraq: “Obviously, if we knew then what we know now, there wouldn’t have been a vote and I certainly wouldn’t have voted that way.” It’s fair to ask: Knew what then? Not everyone was so easily misled by the White House’s manipulated intelligence and propaganda campaign. Some of her fellow leaders in Washington — not just Mr. Obama out in Illinois, not just Al Gore out of power — knew plenty in the fall of 2002. Why didn’t she?
Bob Graham, then Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, was publicly and privately questioning the W.M.D. intelligence. So was Nancy Pelosi. Chuck Hagel warned that the war was understaffed, that an Iraq distraction might cause Afghanistan “to go down again” and that the toppling of Saddam could be followed by chaos. Joe Biden convened hearings to warn of the perils of an ill-planned post-Saddam Iraq.
Some of these politicians ended up voting to authorize war exactly as Mrs. Clinton did (Senators Hagel and Biden). Some didn’t. But all of them — and there were others as well — asked tougher questions and exerted more leadership. John Edwards, by the way, did not: he was as trigger-happy about speeding up the war authorization then (“The time has come for decisive action”) as he is gung-ho about withdrawal now, despite being an Intelligence Committee member when Mr. Graham sounded alarms about the Bush administration’s W.M.D. claims.
Another fair question is what Mrs. Clinton learned once the war began. Even in the summer of 2003 — after the insurgency had started, after the W.M.D. had failed to materialize, after the White House had retracted the president’s 16 words about “uranium from Africa,” more than two months after “Mission Accomplished” had failed to end major combat operations — she phoned a reporter at The Daily News, James Gordon Meek, to reiterate that she still had no second thoughts about the war. (Mr. Meek first wrote about this July 14, 2003, conversation in December 2005.) Was that what this smart woman really believed then, or political calculation?
Either way, she made a judgment, and she will not be able to spend month after month explaining it away to voters with glib, lawyerly statements. The politics of personal destruction, should they actually visit the Clintons once more, will not take America’s mind off the politics of mass destruction in Iraq.