Bush drift helps red-state Dems

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a red-state Democrat, was in town this week for a round of meetings and fundraising. Arizona’s long border with Mexico is porous and difficult to seal. In the past, governors have used National Guard troops to help plug the holes when the INS wasn’t able to do the job. Now many of those troops are in Iraq.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a red-state Democrat, was in town this week for a round of meetings and fundraising.

Arizona’s long border with Mexico is porous and difficult to seal. In the past, governors have used National Guard troops to help plug the holes when the INS wasn’t able to do the job. Now many of those troops are in Iraq.

Governors in other Western states may have difficulty fighting forest fires this summer because their helicopters and the men and women who pilot them are fighting Iraqi insurgents. States troubled with hurricanes and other natural disasters may be shorthanded as well. If the war begins to make life at home more dangerous, American frustration with Iraq will grow stronger.

According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 60 percent of Americans already believe Iraq is going badly and a majority thinks we never should have got involved in the first place. President Bush’s approval rating has dropped to 42 percent. The man who started a second term boasting that he had political capital and was going to use it for his agenda seems to have burned through quite a bit of it already.

The elephant in the room may well be the question many are reluctant to ask in polite company: “Were they lying about the reasons for getting us into the Iraq quagmire, or did they simply not know what they were doing?” Either answer sends a very bad message, and that may be why more than 60 percent of Americans think the country has gone off in the wrong direction.

Let’s review the bidding on this question now that I’ve been rude enough to raise it. Back when we were preparing to go to war Vice President Cheney said on “Meet the Press,” “I really do believe we’ll be greeted as liberators.”

Both Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld argued this would be a relatively brief mission, with U.S. forces toppling Saddam Hussein from power, a quick transition to democracy and American troops coming home soon. “To suggest that we need several hundred thousand troops there after military operations cease, after the conflict ends, I don’t think is accurate. I think that’s an overstatement,” Cheney said.

Even now the administration claims the insurgency is “in its last throes.” Asked Sunday by Tim Russert if he thought that was accurate, another Arizonan, Republican Sen. John McCain, had a simple one-word answer: “No.” McCain went on to say, “Too often the American people have been told that we’re at a turning point.”

The senator predicted that we’ll have a heavy troop commitment in Iraq for “at least a couple more years.” He then offered the White House some sound advice: “We need to achieve success, then celebrate” rather than continue to predict that victory is just around the corner. Another Republican senator and possible presidential candidate, Chuck Hagel from Nebraska, called our claims about progress in Iraq “disconnected from reality.”

So, which is it? Did the president mislead the American people, as a majority said they believed in one recent poll? Or did this administration either truly believe or choose to believe that most Iraqis really wanted American liberators to bring Western-style democracy to their country? Whichever it is, Americans are beginning to believe this is the gang that couldn’t think straight.

Bush has an often-surprising ability to land on his feet. His message machine is expert at putting a positive spin on almost any reversal. Those skills are being sorely tested as support for his Social Security proposal tanks, two-thirds of the nation disagrees with his position on stem-cell research and it looks as if the only hope for John Bolton is an embarrassing recess appointment.

Which brings us back to the governor of Arizona. She’s not the only red-state Democratic governor seeking reelection this year. While most gubernatorial and congressional elections turn on local issues, a White House that is off-message and out of step with the American people is going to help turn some of those red states purple. Messages about preserving Social Security, bringing the National Guard home where we need it, keeping the politicians out of personal family decisions and giving us the tools we need to cure disease look to be winners for a lot of Democrats.

The election is still 18 months away, but during those campaigns Republicans may not be clamoring for a visit from a president with little political capital left.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com