No, it's not the American way

Posted: May 10, 2004 12:00 AM

 As this is written, no one  knows just what effect the gruesome photos from Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison will have on George W. Bush's poll numbers. The Washington cognoscenti now chattering happily about whether Donald Rumsfeld will be forced to resign expect the numbers to plunge. But these same people also thought Bush's numbers would dip after fighting intensified in Iraq in April, and they didn't. Instead, since his much-panned April 13 press conference, Bush has run perceptibly better against John Kerry than he did before mid-April. Voters rallied behind the president even amid -- or perhaps because of -- the turmoil.
About the Abu Ghraib abuses there is not much divergence of opinion. Almost all Americans are as disgusted as Bush himself -- not Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or their minions ... merely frat pranksterism to them. Americans hold themselves to high standards, and if others hold us to those standards even while they excuse or ignore the far more evil acts of others -- like the mass murders and torture of Saddam Hussein's regime -- that's a price we must pay. It is essential to determine whether these were the isolated acts of a few miscreants or the result of actions of those higher in the chain of command. It is tragic that these abuses, at least for the moment, are overshadowing the bravery, resourcefulness, and generosity of tens of thousands of Americans in uniform in Iraq.

 One of the basic divides in public opinion is over American exceptionalism, the idea shared by Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy and George W. Bush, that ours is a special, and especially good, nation. The divide is illustrated by two questions recently put by pollster Scott Rasmussen. In response, 64 percent agreed that America is generally fair and decent, while 22 percent said it was unfair and discriminatory. And 62 percent agreed that the world would be a better place if other countries behaved more like the United States, while 14 percent said it would be a worse place.

 There is an interesting difference between Republicans and Democrats. Bush voters agree, by an 83-to-7 percent margin, that America is generally fair and decent. Kerry voters also agree, but only by 46 to 37 percent. Fully 81 percent of Bush voters believe that the world would be a better place if other countries were more like the United States. Only 48 percent of Kerry voters agree. Almost all Republican voters believe in American exceptionalism. Only about half of Democratic voters do. We have seen this same pattern on the war in Iraq -- Republicans united in support of George W. Bush, and Democrats divided.

 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.