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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

White House Self-Deception

Yesterday’s DLC commentary on the president’s big Iraq speech suggested that yet again George W. Bush is demonstrating he’s the ultimate one-trick pony as a leader in time of war. He’s capable of communicating “resolve,” and not much of anything else.So I was more than a little interested in today’s Washington Post front-pager by Peter Baker and Dan Balz reporting that Bush is pursuing this we-make-no-mistakes tone of “confidence” on the advice of a political scientist who recently joined the National Security Council staff.The staffer in question, former Duke poli sci professor Peter Feaver (who also worked at the NSC early in the Clinton administration), is best known for a study he did with Duke colleague Christopher Gelpi on war leadership and U.S. public opinion. According to Baker and Balz, their big conclusion, based especially on Vietnam, is that the key factor in public support for a war is the perception that we’re winning, with presidential assurances on this front being particularly important.It’s not completely clear to me whether this characterization of Feaver and Gelpi’s views is accurate; some of it seems to be coming from unnamed “Bush aides.” And the piece also quotes Gelpi as saying that Bush’s latest speech was insufficiently specific in laying out a strategy for success in Iraq.But still, it’s more than passing strange that the White House would hire a political scientist to tell Bush exactly what he wants to hear in terms of his communication strategy on Iraq. It sounds sort of like scouring the earth for a dietician willing to tell a fat man that his habit of eating five pounds of ice cream a day is a good weight management technique.More importantly, it’s troublesome to learn that the White House thinks presidential spin on Iraq is more important to public support than the actual facts on the ground. All the “resolve” in the world won’t help Bush if the insurgency cannot be quelled, and if the Iraqis cannot achieve a political settlement that will make it possible for a stable government to function.The initial reaction to Bush’s speech doesn’t seem to indicate it had much of a positive effect on public opinion, and in part that’s because his expressions of “resolve” were insufficiently linked to the kind of specifics that could make them credible. Maybe it’s time for someone on the White House staff to break through the atmosphere of willful self-deception and suggest a communications strategy that’s based more on facts and less on spin. In other words, maybe Bush should be told to lay off the ice cream.

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