Inside the numbers: War politics

Posted: Jul 29, 2003 12:00 AM

Evidence continues to mount that Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., will at least flirt with the idea of running for president next year. Either way, she certainly has assumed the role of chief spokesperson in attacking President George W. Bush -- a strategy that likely will blow up in her, and the Democratic Party's, face before Election Day 2004.

A recent national survey showed Clinton outdistancing all announced candidates for the Democratic nomination, which is hardly a shock. That group has all the collective charisma and savvy of the disastrous 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis. Enter Sen. Clinton, who has called for an investigation into what knowledge of national security threats the Bush White House might have had prior to 9-11. She even had the gall to suggest the White House has stonewalled the disclosure of critical information. Well, if anyone knows how to stonewall, it's Clinton.

Meanwhile, the more measured Clinton clan member -- former president Bill -- phoned into "Larry King Live" last week to say he thinks Bush has handled the anti-terrorism war more or less correctly. He's right.

If the Democrats start overreaching their way to investigations over, say, a 16-word misstatement in Bush's last State of the Union address, or the 9-11 disclosures, they will probably spark a backlash similar to the one against congressional Republicans that saved President Clinton from possible removal from office.

As for the White House, they should stop playing defense on 9-11 and weapons of mass destruction and start pointing out the gains made against terrorism and rogue states. The fact is, the Bush administration has pulled off nothing shy of a miracle. In response to the Attack on America, the White House completely revamped security at key locations across the nation. Airports are now more secure, and volatile infrastructure like dams, electrical grids and nuclear facilities are now watched closer than ever. A massive Homeland Security Department coordinates what used to be a fragmented system of protecting our shores.

In Iraq, a savage, murderous tyrant is deposed. Have we forgotten that Saddam Hussein invaded two neighboring countries and used weapons of mass destruction on his own people? Those actions should signal Hussein's willingness to export evil beyond his borders once again.

The Iraqi war was fought with the fewest possible casualties to both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. Yes, the deaths of any and all U.S. soldiers are tragic. But you can bet that almost everyone in the armed forces supported the war.

I have to plead insanity on behalf of whoever at the Democratic National Committee decided to blow almost $100,000 on a New York Times ad that called for an investigation into the administration. The ad had little impact, and if respected Democratic candidates like Florida Sen. Bob Graham -- who has hinted that Bush may have committed impeachable offenses -- continue with this wacky strategy, the Democrats may find themselves unable to gain power in any branch of government.

Bush may (or may not) have erred in publicizing British intelligence that Iraq tried to buy uranium for nuclear bombs from Africa. But to compare that to President Clinton's misstatements made under oath is just plain silly, not to mention a boneheaded political tactic. Besides, Clinton's false deposition didn't lower his public approval. So why would a less serious breach by Bush lower his?

The 9-11 intelligence breakdown was systemic throughout an uncoordinated U.S. government. No serious person believes the president, FBI, CIA or anyone else wouldn't have done anything possible to prevent 9-11 had they known it was imminent. That's probably why Bill Clinton is more understanding of Bush. He knows an attack on America could easily have happened under his watch.

The only way I see anything other than a loud backfire on the Democrats for these swipes at Bush is if the president and his allies themselves overreact by seeking retribution against these political enemies. I've seen some petty and ineffective efforts at character assassination in the past by GOP operatives. The Republicans would be wise to remember what Richard Nixon never did: There's no need to call a plumber if the downstairs isn't flooded.