Bush critics' claims usually don't stick

Posted: Oct 08, 2003 12:00 AM

Conservatives have gotten a lot of grief these days from various corners for trying to defend President Bush on the White House leak scandal.

For example, my friend Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, writes about the "flurry of justifications: some plausible, some contradictory, some laughable" offered by the conservative press in the days after the story broke (or, I should say "re-broke" since the leak had been known since last July).

Such scorekeeping is entirely fair in politics, and conservative explanations and excuses have been all over the map. Of course, the diversity of responses and opinions on the right should help dispel the notion that conservatives are intellectually homogeneous and politically monolithic. If the vast right wing conspiracy existed, after all, we would have gotten our stories straight from the outset - thanks to our super-duper decoder rings and the transmitters in our fillings.

Truth be told, I don't know what happened. I don't take Joseph Wilson at his word, in part because his words keep changing and in part because he strikes me as a partisan limelight hog. At first he flat out accused Karl Rove of outing his wife as a spy; now he's backed away from that claim. He's fretted about how his wife is in danger but takes every opportunity to draw more attention to himself and his wife - and enthusiastically muses about who will play her in the movies.

My guess is that this scandal will be much closer to "Filegate" than Watergate. Filegate, recall, was the Clinton scandal (there were so many) in which a former bouncer named Craig Livingstone collected 900 FBI files on various members of Republican administrations. Because the Clinton White House was the most Nixonian since, well, Nixon, conservatives were understandably suspicious that the files were being used for an enemies list.

Back then the Democrats and liberals were saying "this is no big deal," and the Republicans and conservatives saw a dastardly conspiracy afoot. Both sides were wrong. The scandal was a big deal on the merits - as is the current White House leak - but the explanation involved less skullduggery and more stupidity than the president's critics were willing to imagine.

Of course, I don't know that the leak scandal will turn out to be a mistake rather than a malevolent maneuver, but I'd certainly be willing to bet that way.

And if we're going to get into the business of scorekeeping, it's worth pointing out that a betting man would wager the president's critics are wrong again, considering how bad their track record has been.

It began before the guy was even sworn in. During the Florida recount, Democrats insisted that blacks were deliberately blocked from the polls. But there was no evidence, and Dems offered no evidence of this in their many, many court challenges - because you can't lie and spin in court. Then we were told that Bush had put more arsenic in the water, a distortion of staggering proportions (he merely put on hold a last-minute Clinton regulation to restrict acceptable arsenic levels even further).

But it was after 9/11 that the assaults lost all coherence. Critics said Bush was fomenting - or not stopping - a nationwide anti-Arab "backlash." Bush was a fool for attacking Afghanistan because the Muslim street would turn against us. Ditto if we attacked on Ramadan. They said there was no link between al-Qaida and the Taliban. A couple weeks into the Afghan war, various liberal commentators insisted it was a disaster and a quagmire. After the war they said Bush was shortchanging nation-building.

In the lead-up to Iraq, Bush's critics insisted that Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction, even as they warned that Saddam might use them against our troops. He might also launch a strike on Israel and create a huge outflow of Iraqi refugees. A week into the war, the word "quagmire" again appeared in The New York Times and elsewhere, even as America led the fastest military advance in history.

After the war, the looting of the Baghdad Museum was a world historical calamity of the first order. President Bush was spending too much on nation-building. Now we're told that Bush "lied" by repeating what every intelligence agency in the West believed to be true at the time - that Saddam had undeclared WMD. And, of course, the Patriot Act has trampled the Bill of Rights.

In other words, almost every major criticism of the administration has either been false or an exaggeration, with the exception of Bush spending too little on nation-building. But now the Democrats have flip-flopped on that.

Now, of course such scorekeeping is a bit unfair. Many individual Bush critics were consistent and honest (Beinart's one of them). But if it's OK to lump conservatives into a monolithic bunch, it's fair to do it to liberals, too. And on that score, conservatives are winning. In fact it's a blowout.