I think we are seeing, or will see, this same pattern of response to Abu Ghraib. Most Americans, and including a large majority of Republicans and about half of Democrats, will see this as aberrant misconduct, a betrayal of the high standards we hold ourselves to and usually uphold. Other Democrats, unbelievers in American exceptionalism, will seize on Abu Ghraib as evidence that this country is not special and especially good. And so, of course, will our critics and enemies around the world.
This has two implications, one for the campaign and one for governance. For the campaign, it is a structural disadvantage for John Kerry. In a year when both candidates are trying to rally their supporters to get out and vote, Bush can appeal to voters of one mind and Kerry must appeal to voters of two minds. This helps to explain why he voted for the Iraq war and against the $87 billion supplemental appropriation. Or, as he put it March 16, "I did actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." He has to appeal to those who want us to win and those who think we deserve to lose
For governance, George W. Bush has the task of leading a country that believes in American exceptionalism in a world in which that idea is, for many, off-putting if not repugnant. This is why Bush has taken pains to explain that the "nonnegotiable demands of human dignity" are not just American but universal, the gift of God -- or, if you will, imperatives imposed by secular ideas of liberty and equality. America's specialness has been its good fortune in asserting and trying to uphold those ideals earlier than others and having the strength, and therefore the obligation, to advance them around the world.
Abu Ghraib makes that message harder to sell, but we must persevere.
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