No more rosy scenarios. After watching his credibility and approval ratings crumble over the course of 2005, President Bush completed a rhetorical shift Sunday night by abandoning his everything-is-OK pitch to Americans and coming clean: He was wrong about the rationale for going to war in Iraq; he underestimated the dangers; the country has suffered “terrible loss”; and the bad news isn’t over.
Even with his high-profile display of candor _ a step anxious Republican leaders had been demanding for weeks _ Bush remained unyielding.
“To retreat before victory would be an act of recklessness and dishonor and I will not allow it,” he said in a prime-time address, capping a series of five speeches designed to reverse a stunning political free-fall.
There is some evidence that the rhetorical shift has worked. Recent polls suggest that while a majority of Americans disapprove of Bush’s performance, his job rating has increased a bit. Nearly six of every 10 Americans said the U.S. military should stay until Iraq is stabilized, which is Bush’s position.
A year ago, more than 70 percent held that view, and Bush insisted the Iraq war was on a steady path to victory. “Month by month, Iraqis are assuming more responsibility for their own security,” Bush said during his re-election campaign.
Vice President Dick Cheney, the administration’s chief cheerleader, went so far as to say last May that Iraqi insurgents were in the “last throes.”
The happy talk didn’t ring true to many Americans, who watched in horror as the U.S. death toll climbed above 2,000 and wondered why Bush refused to take time off from his summer vacation to meet with the mother of a slain soldier. Cindy Sheehan became the grim face of a budding anti-war movement.
Bush seemed out of touch, unable to grasp the concerns of people opposed to the war or even those who were starting to wonder about it.
While standing firm on his main principle _ that the war in Iraq is key to American security _ Bush reached out Sunday to those who disagree.
“I also want to speak to those of you who did not support my decision to send troops to Iraq: I have heard your disagreement, and I know how deeply it is felt,” Bush said. “I do not expect you to support everything I do, but tonight I have a request: Do not give in to despair, and do not give up on this fight for freedom.”
At his political best in 2004, Bush acknowledged that people would disagree with him and used that tension to burnish his credibility. “Even when we don’t agree,” he said at his nominating convention in New York, “you know what I believe and where I stand.”
His credibility now in tatters, Bush injected a dose of reality into his rhetoric. He used some form of the word “sacrifice” four times, spoke three times of the “loss” caused by war and braced Americans for more to come: “There is more testing and sacrifice before us.”
He said Iraq has been more difficult than expected, a rare admission of error. This is exactly what many senior Republicans had urged Bush to do _ speak bluntly about war as Franklin Roosevelt did during World War II and eloquently about the cause and sacrifice as Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War.
“Tonight was a high water mark in his acknowledgment that mistakes have been made and that he has to accept his share of the blame,” said Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
Did it work? That’s for Americans to judge, but even with a softening of his rhetoric Bush is still giving doubters little leeway. People are still either with him _ or for defeat.
“Defeatism may have its partisan uses,” he said, “but it is not justified by the facts.”
Ron Fournier has covered the White House and politics since 1992.