When President Bush wakes in the night, does he wonder how the family of 20-year-old Lance Corporal Clifford Collinsworth, who was killed last week in Iraq, copes with the loss? Does he think about whether the almost 3,000 other U.S. deaths there have been worth it?
At Bush's press conference Oct. 25, as he twisted his mouth to speak out of one side of it, his very words seemed to pain him. "I know many Americans are not satisfied," he said. "I'm not either. But we can't allow our dissatisfaction to turn into disillusionment." Some of the bad news is "sophisticated propaganda by the enemy," he said.
Not once did he utter the phrase "stay the course," which has been removed from the White House talking points the way portraits of discredited leaders were removed from the Kremlin.
What's forcing the banishment is not the looming defeat in Iraq but the one looming at the polls.
Bush told George Stephanopoulos recently that "we've never been stay the course." His press secretary, Tony Snow, said the words haven't passed Bush's lips since Aug. 31.
You only have to click on YouTube to see a video of at least 50 times over the last year when the president invoked those words to describe his Iraq policy. Bush now says he was only distinguishing himself from those who would leave abruptly. He's been misunderstood if anyone thought he wasn't a proponent of "adjusting" his tactics as the situation demanded.
No one has claimed that. Bush might be slow to change tactics, but he changes them. The awful truth is not that military tactics haven't changed. It's that they have changed and failed.
This is where slogans substituting for policy can get you into trouble. With two weeks to go before the election, it's time for some new spin, although in Bushland it's sadly not time for new policies. I'm reminded of Bush's father during his 1992 re-election campaign. When accused of ignoring struggling workers, he responded, "Message: I care," rather than by actually doing anything for them.
By "stay the course" the current president meant that despite what your eyes tell you, victory is around the corner. Voters just need to stick with someone with resolve like him, as opposed to the Democrats -- or "Defeatocrats" -- who would cut and run before the job is done.
With evidence that there is little Americans can now do to stem the worsening violence, Democrats successfully turned "stay the course" against the Republicans. Now, endangered Republicans are urging the White House to inform voters that you don't have to do anything so rash as to vote Democratic to get the country out of Iraq.
Changing course might save lives, but it's too painful for Bush to swallow, requiring as it does some admission that Iraq is descending into a chaos that Americans are helpless to stop.
A new course may involve unpleasant options such as dividing Iraq into a loose confederation, pushing out Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who was never willing to control the Shiite militias, enlisting Iran and Syria in a regional diplomatic effort, or toughest of all, sending more troops.
Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, put that last option on the table, although he hedged by adding that it would likely mean reassigning troops already in country. You can bet Bush's flexibility stops, at least before the election, at sending new troops to a place a majority of Americans have given up on.
The White House may be all too mindful of the addictive salted-peanut phenomenon former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned Nixon about after he took office. Kissinger, now an informal adviser to Bush on Iraq, said that if Nixon were to begin withdrawing troops from Vietnam before the next U.S. election, it would set off a hunger for more withdrawals and be an acknowledgment that mistakes were made. Nixon's domestic enemies would never be satisfied, and therein lay defeat.
Bush is keeping company with the wrong former secretary of state. James Baker, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group with former Rep. Lee Hamilton, has said his recommendations will be to put more options on the table than to merely stay the course. Unfortunately, Baker is playing out the election clock, agreeing not to issue recommendations until after the midterm congressional elections.
Death won't stop the minute Bush changes course but that's not an argument for waiting. Changing course won't bring back Corporal Collinsworth, yet it could save his bunkmate.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg News.