Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, never tires of reminding people that he is just a former pest exterminator from Sugar Land, Tex. But beginning this weekend, he will travel to the world's most complex and troubled region, meet with prime ministers, speak to a foreign parliament and, by his presence, remind the Bush administration to pay heed to its right flank as it seeks to make peace.This is no accident, and I believe that DeLay's "dissenting message" is not intended to hobble the White House in the slightest. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if someone in the White House authored it.
As he travels next week through Israel, Jordan and Iraq, he will take with him a message of grave doubt that the Middle East is ready for a Palestinian state, as called for in the current peace plan, known as the road map, backed by the administration and Europe.
'I'm sure there are some in the administration who are smarter than me, but I can't imagine in the very near future that a Palestinian state could ever happen,' he said in an interview today, as he prepared to leave for a weeklong official tour.
'I can't imagine this president supporting a state of terrorists, a sovereign state of terrorists,' he said. 'You'd have to change almost an entire generation's culture.'
DeLay is serving a useful dual role here. By expressing his "grave doubts", he reassures the right wing (especially evangelicals) that the Republican party continues to support them. His attempts to "remind the administration" of an attitude that they're perfectly familiar with, however, is instead an attempt to make them look more centrist and reasonable.
The White House desperately needs that right now. Bush needs to pull the focus of the media away from the "sixteen words" and back onto the White House and its "Grand Strategy" for fighting the war against terrorism (by attempting to remake the Middle East). They know they're on shaky ground when it comes to parsing and justifications, but are confident that they hold the advantage as long as they aren't faced with a competing "Grand Strategy" from the Democrats. The more abstract the policy discussion, the better off the White House is.
The trick for the Democrats, then, is to deny Bush that opportunity. An element of that may well be sheer bloodymindedness, sticking to the simple questions of truth and spin that Bush's White House seems incredibly bad at dealing with. At the same time, however, it may be a good idea to follow up those jabs with a knockout punch- to formulate an alternative strategy for dealing with terrorism, third world security, and third world hostility to America without either aping Bush's position or denying that some course of action is required.
The thing is, I'm sure that if I know this needs to be done, then all the Democratic candidates and their campaign teams know this needs to be done. So why are they focusing on the small stuff? Why not bring out the big guns?
Probably for the same reason the Bush administration loathes leaks- they're playing their cards close to their chests, and don't want to reveal their hands too early. There's a long time between now and November 2004, and to put out an alternative foreign policy position now would be counterproductive at the very least. The situation could change, leading to candidates being hung by their own petards by ill-timed early statements. Bush's policy could change, meaning that their critiques and ideas become moot. Most damaging, though, is the prospect of granting the Bush administration over a year to not only figure out each and every permutation of attack that is available to the incumbent president, but to perhaps use the power of the presidency to alter the situation just enough that the candidate's policy becomes useless.
By sticking to the small stuff, then, the Dems can weaken Bush without exposing their own weaknesses too much, because the small stuff is known to everybody and because counter-offensives only exacerbate the Stanfield Effect.
(Plus, by picking which avenue of attack they want to persue, they can distinguish themselves from the other candidates without letting up on Bush. This is vital to keeping Democratic cohesion, and useful for highlighting the candidates who appear to be best able to make the accusations and make them resonate with the American people and the media.)
So for those saying "the Dems have no plan", I answer: they don't need to, and to push one right now would be incredibly foolish. 2004 won't be 2002... playing "Bush Lite" isn't going to work during an election where national security is king and Bush is making the medicare issue his own. Poor (if not deliberately deceptive) right-wing advice aside, the candidates are best advised to keep doing what they're doing now: attacking Bush's (politically sacred) credibility, getting donations for 2004, figuring out where they stand, and positioning themselves for the primaries by criticizing Bush, not each other.
(Free tip for Dem candidates: the Saudi issue is almost certainly a tar baby. It'll force you to not only place yourself to the right of the administration and play to its strengths, but dealing with the Saudi issue is going to be a delicate and difficult matter that should be avoided until truly necessary. It'll also probably tick off the base, and that's where the cash comes from.)