A Presidential sleight of hand

As the dank grayness of late fall and early winter settled in over the Nation’s Capital, a winter storm of its own raged inside the White House.

George W. Bush’s senior advisors, frantic over what to do about the President’s plummeting approval numbers, argued over conflicting strategies. The President’s attempt to use Veterans Day as a rallying cry for his war in Iraq, fell flat on a skeptical public and attempts to paint Democratic Congressman John Murtha, an honored Vietnam war veteran, as unpatriotic brought disapproval.

In conversations with White House aides, GOP advisors and others close to the Bush administration, all of whom insist on anonymity for fear of retaliation from a President who views such actions as treason, a portrait of a White House torn by turf battles and finger pointing emerges. Yet, amid all this debate, a classic case of “good cop/bad cop” political strategy emerged.

Presidential Chief of Staff Andrew Card, considered one of the saner voices within the administration, argued against attacking Murtha or other planned attempts by Presidential political guru Karl Rove to paint Democrats as cowards for opposing the war in Iraq.

Card, instead, pushed a plan to put Bush on the road with a new series of speeches where the President would admit some mistakes in the Iraq war but argue that the U.S. must remain committed to the war and see it through.

The plan angered Rove who never wants the President to admit error.

“Admitting mistakes is a sign of weakness,” Rove argued. “George W. Bush’s strong points are his leadership, his steadfastness, his resolve. You can’t weaken that with a ‘we were wrong’ strategy.”

Rove wanted to step up attacks on Democrats, castigating them for advocating withdrawal from Iraq and painting them as un-American for opposing the war.

“We’ve tried that,” Card shot back. “It didn’t work.”

Rove argued that the plan would work if the White House didn’t quit changing strategy every time new poll numbers came in.

Bush, forced to choose between conflicting plans from two trusted aides, decided to give Card’s idea a try. His first speech met with lukewarm views but his poll numbers showed a slight bump. So the White House booked more speeches with Bush showing determination mixed with just enough admission of error.

But Bush was not ready to let the Democrats off for daring to oppose him on Iraq. He told Rove to find another venue to attack opponents of the war so Rove trotted over to 310 First Street SE, home of the Republican National Committee, and pitched an inflammatory web site ad that showed Democrats slinking away in surrender.

Called “Retreat and Defeat,” the ad shows Democrats waving the white flag on Iraq and has brought instant condemnation from both Democrats and Republicans.

“The Republican Party’s latest ad is a shameful and disgusting attempt to distract the American people from the problems in Iraq,” says Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner from World War II. “It may improve the President’s political fortunes, but the American people and our troops will pay the price.”

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is equally outraged:

“I don’t think it’s appropriate.  Howard Dean is wrong when he says we can’t win.  It doesn’t mean he’s not a patriot.  John Kerry wants to cut the force by two-thirds.  I think he’s wrong, but it doesn’t mean he’s not a patriot,” Graham says.

When asked if the ad should be pulled, Graham responds: “Yes.  I don’t want to have a campaign about who’s a patriot.  I want to have a campaign that would unite the country, find consensus on Iraq and talk about our political differences in terms that make us stronger, not weaker.”

Says Inouye: “I hope that President Bush realizes how shameful it is to play politics when what we really need is leadership, and that he will direct his party to take down this ad immediately.”

Bush can’t do that. In this case, Karl Rove did what he was told. He found another venue to use what has become a favorite ploy of the President of the United States: Cast anyone who opposes his policies as a traitor to the country.