If theater is in your blood, you just can't resist the urge to put on a show. After the good news arrived about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, administration officials at first downplayed any prospect of a new "Mission Accomplished" to hype the victory. But that restraint didn't last a week. In sync with Barbra Streisand, who this month announced a new concert tour to cap her 1994 farewell tour, the White House gave in to its nature and revved up its own encore.
Given our government's preference for spectacle over substance, "Baghdad Surprise 2" was more meticulously planned than security for post-liberation Baghdad. The script was a montage of the administration's greatest hits.
As with the prototype of Thanksgiving 2003, there was a breathless blow-by-blow of how President Bush faked out his own cabinet, donned a baseball cap and slipped into his waiting plane. In cautious remembrance of "Top Gun," White House photos were disseminated of the fearless leader hovering in the cockpit. Once on the ground, Mr. Bush made much of looking into the eyes of Nuri al-Maliki, our third post-Saddam Iraqi leader, and finding him as worthy as he did Vladimir Putin after a similarly theatrical ocular X-ray.
This bit of presidential shtick is now as polished as Johnny Carson's old burlesque psychic, Carnac the Magnificent.
But not every sequel is as satisfying as "Spider-Man 2." This time, the plot holes in the triumphal narrative were too obvious.
Since Thanksgiving 2003, the number of American troops in Iraq has gone up and casualties have increased more than fivefold. With Italy and South Korea leading the bailout, the "coalition of the willing" is wilting. (Rest assured that Moldova and El Salvador are hanging in.) Iraq security is such that Mr. Bush could stay only six hours, all in the Green Zone bunker. The presidential diagnosis of Mr. Maliki's trustworthiness was contradicted by the White House decision to keep the visit a secret from him until the last minute. How big a dis is that? Even the Americans the administration distrusts most - journalists - were told a day in advance.
Polls last week showed scant movement in either the president's approval rating (37 percent in the NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey released on Wednesday night) or that of the war (53 percent deem it a mistake). On NBC Tim Russert listed Mr. Bush's woes:
"Iraq, Iraq, Iraq." Americans pick Iraq as the most pressing national issue, 21 points ahead of immigration, the runner-up. They find the war so dispiriting that the networks spend less and less time covering it. Had the much-hyped Alberto roused itself from tropical storm to hurricane, Mr. Bush's Baghdad jaunt would have been bumped for the surefire Nielsen boost of tempest-tossed male anchors emoting in the great outdoors.
All of which makes it stupendously counterintuitive that the Republican campaign strategy for 2006 is to run on the war. But there was Karl Rove, freshly released from legal jeopardy, proposing exactly that in a speech just before the president's trip. In a drive-by Swift Boating, he portrayed John Kerry and John Murtha, two decorated Vietnam veterans calling for an expedited exit from Iraq, as cowards who exemplify their party's "old pattern of cutting and running."
Mr. Rove's speech was almost an exact replay of the first speech to politicize the war on terrorism - also by him and delivered just four months after 9/11. In January 2002, he said Republicans could "go to the country on this issue" because voters "trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America."
Democrats howled, but with Mr. Bush's approval ratings still sky-high, the strategy was a slam dunk. The Democratic Senate majority leader then, Tom Daschle, was yoked to Saddam Hussein in a campaign attack ad. Intimidated colleagues stampeded to sign on to a hasty Iraq war resolution, exquisitely timed by the White House to come to a vote before the midterms. The Democrats lost anyway, as they would again in 2004, when Mr. Rove elevated Swift Boating to an extreme sport.
But in 2006? The war is going so badly that it's hard to imagine how the Democrats, fractious as they are, could fail, particularly if the Republicans insist on highlighting the debacle, as they did last week by staging a Congressional mud fight about Iraq on the same day that the American death toll reached 2,500. As the Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio wittily observed in April: "The good news is Democrats don't have much of a plan. The bad news is they may not need one."
Actually, though, the Democrats did have some plans, all of them now capsizing. The biggest was the hope that they could be propelled into power by their opponents' implosions. But Mr. Rove was not indicted. And the "culture of corruption" has lost its zing. Tom DeLay is gone, Duke Cunningham is in jail, and many Americans can't differentiate between Jack Abramoff, the Indian casino maven, and William Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat who kept $90,000 of very cool cash in his freezer.
On the war, Democrats are fighting among themselves or, worse, running away from it altogether. Last week the party's most prominent politician, Hillary Clinton, rejected both the president's strategy of continuing with "his open-ended commitment" in Iraq and some Democrats' strategy of setting "a date certain" for withdrawal. She was booed by some in her liberal audience who chanted, "Bring the troops home now!" But her real sin was not that she failed to endorse that option, but that she failed to endorse any option.
Like Mr. Bush, she presented a false choice - either stay the course or cut and run - yet unlike Mr. Bush, she didn't even alight on one of them. This perilous juncture demands that leaders of both parties, whether running for president or not, articulate the least-disastrous Iraq exit option that Americans and Iraqis can rally around. Time is running out. The new Brookings Institution Iraq Index cites a poll showing that 87 percent of Iraqis want a timeline for American withdrawal, and 47 percent approve of attacks on American troops. A timeline does not require, as Mrs. Clinton disingenuously implies, an arbitrary "date certain" for withdrawal.
While the Democrats dither about Iraq, you can bet that the White House will ambush them with its own election-year facsimile of an exit strategy, dangling nominal troop withdrawals as bait for voters. To sweeten the pot, it could push Donald Rumsfeld to join Mr.
DeLay in retirement. Since Republicans also vilify the defense secretary's incompetence, his only remaining value to the White House is as a political pawn that Mr. Rove can pluck from the board at the most advantageous moment. October, perhaps?
What's most impressive about Mr. Rove, however, is not his ruthlessness, it's his unshakable faith in the power of a story. The story he's stuck with, Iraq, is a loser, but he knows it won't lose at the polls if there's no story to counter it. And so he tells it over and over, confident that the Democrats won't tell their own. And they don't - whether about Iraq or much else. The question for the Democrats is less whether they tilt left, right or center, than whether they can find a stirring narrative that defines their views, not just the Republicans'.
What's needed, wrote Michael Tomasky in an influential American Prospect essay last fall, is a "big-picture case based on core principles." As he argued, Washington's continued and inhumane failure to ameliorate the devastation of Katrina could not be a more pregnant opportunity for the Democrats to set forth a comprehensive alternative to the party in power. Another opportunity, of course, is the oil dependence that holds America hostage to the worst governments in the Middle East.
Instead the Democrats float Band-Aid nostrums and bumper-sticker marketing strategies like "Together, America Can Do Better." As the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg pointed out, "The very ungrammaticality of the Democrats' slogan reminds you that this is a party with a chronic problem of telling a coherent story about itself, right down to an inability to get its adverbs and subjects to agree." On Wednesday Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid were to announce their party's "New Direction" agenda - actually, an inoffensive checklist of old directions (raise the minimum wage, cut student loan costs, etc.) - that didn't even mention Iraq. Symbolically enough, they had to abruptly reschedule the public unveiling to attend Mr. Bush's briefing on his triumphant trip to Baghdad.
Those who are most enraged about the administration's reckless misadventures are incredulous that it repeatedly gets away with the same stunts. Last week the president was still invoking 9/11 to justify the war in Iraq, which he again conflated with the war on Islamic jihadism - the war we are now losing, by the way, in Afghanistan and Somalia. But as long as the Democrats keep repeating their own mistakes, they will lose to the party whose mistakes are, if nothing else, packaged as one heckuva show. It's better to have the courage of bad convictions than no courage or convictions at all.
© 2006 The New York Times