Back in the days before the President’s poll numbers plummeted over Iraq, perhaps the Bush administration’s best strategy was the rope-a-dope. We saw it played over time and time again. Democrats would attack Bush, he would ignore them as if they were nothing more than gnats. Democrats would ratchet up their attacks, going farther and farther out on a limb with each successive one until -- “thwap.”
Sometimes that thwap was delivered by events. Early in the first term, Nancy Pelosi repeatedly asked “Where are the jobs, Mr. President” as Democrats attacked Bush for his “tax cuts for the rich.” The thwap was delivered when the effects of the Bush tax cuts kicked in and each quarter saw a growing economy and gains in the job market. After denouncing the tax cuts and predicting economic doom and gloom would result, the Democrats lost any credibility they may have had on the economy when their predictions did not come to pass.
Other times the “thwap” was a deliberate smack down. The President would finally decide, after his opponents had progressed from calling him merely a puppy-hating Nazi to a full out baby murdering Hitler, to respond to the attacks in a forceful way – generally with irrefutable facts. Not only did his opponents then look wrong on the facts, but they looked a bit like raving loonies for having made such outrageous accusations. In some cases opponents of the President had aligned themselves with fringe figures like Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan, making it more difficult to come back to the mainstream where most Americans were.
The “wait and let your enemies self destruct” strategy does not always work though. The case of Joe Wilson, whose ever changing stories were treated as settled fact by almost all in the media, is one example of the administration not coming out to counter a story forcefully enough or early enough. Although Wilson offered varying versions of his story, many times at odds with documents or the statements of others, his version of events became the official storyline for most media outlets. It was the basis for the very first claims that “Bush lied.” The Wilson fairy tale is on course to be immortalized on film, even though we now know that Wilson and his wife, who posed for a famous spread in Vanity Fair, were far from camera shy, and that it was Richard Armitage who leaked the name Valerie Plame, not the White House. The lesson learned there is that sometimes if you wait around for the facts to come out, what happens is that the assertions become the conventional wisdom and no amount of facts disclosed at a later date will change the perception people got from the initial accusations.
Bush’s detractors would be more successful if they knew when to stop, but many don’t. There comes a point when even a friendly media can’t pull them back off of that limb. I think we may have just seen such a point over the past couple of weeks.
For several months, in anticipation of his congressional testimony, General David Petraeus was attacked with a campaign of accusations that he was a lapdog for the White House. The day the general testified, the liberal activist group MoveOn.org made a huge blunder by running a full page ad in the New York Times referring to him as General “Betray Us.” To accuse a well respected general in the U.S. military who was confirmed by a Senate vote of 81-0 of being a traitor was seen my many as outrageous and despicable. Democratic congressmen were asked to comment on the ad and were asked to distance themselves from it and to denounce MoveOn.org.
You might think those on the left would have learned their lesson and would not want to be seen attacking a decorated general, but they didn’t learn. The most recent outrage is an effort to question the medals worn by Petraeus. Unlike the case of John Kerry, whose war record was questioned first by fellow Vietnam Swiftboat Vets, the attacks on Petraeus are coming from liberal bloggers and anti-war groups. In this case the White House does not even have to decide whether or not to weigh in because there are more than a few members of the military and the military blogging community perfectly happy to deliver the smack down. I am confident this will not be a case like that of Joe Wilson where the accusations will overshadow the truth.
Democrats complaining about their patriotism being questioned have little ground to stand on if they are not willing to distance themselves from MoveOn.org and liberal bloggers engaging in attacks on General Petraeus. The left may have scored political points painting Karl Rove as a boogey man, but General Petraeus isn’t Karl Rove. Those of us on the right have learned our lesson and won’t be sitting by letting baseless attacks go unanswered. Instead we will be reminding voters which politicians thought their best argument on Iraq policy was to attack a highly respected general determined to win the war.