The headlines sent Democratic hearts racing: Former White House counterterrorism chief accuses the President of brushing off dire warnings of an imminent al Qaeda threat before September 11, then fixating on punishing Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein even though no proof existed that he was involved in the terrorist attacks.
This is explosive stuff in an election year, and critics of the White House wasted no time arguing that the allegations by former official Richard Clarke were yet more evidence that the Bush Administration habitually bends the truth for political gain. After all, they charge, the President's minions lied about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, misled Congress about the soaring cost of the Medicare prescription-drug bill, and continue to mislead Americans by issuing wildly optimistic economic predictions that insist three rounds of tax-cutting will restore the nearly 2 million-plus jobs lost during George W. Bush's tenure.
No question, the President is taking some direct hits, but Democrats won't necessarily capitalize on them. With the electorate deeply divided along partisan lines, early indications are that Clarke's damning charges -- detailed in his new book Against All Enemies and in congressional testimony on Mar. 24 -- are changing relatively few minds. A Mar. 19-21 Ipsos/Associated Press poll, completed during the Clarke media storm, found that voters, by 45% to 40%, thought Bush was more honest than Democratic challenger John Kerry -- who has been on the receiving end of a Bush TV blitzkrieg depicting him as a congenital flip-flopper. The Clarke flap "reinforces the views of both sides," says independent pollster John Zogby. "The Bush haters will say, 'This is why I hate Bush,' and the Bush lovers will say, 'This is why I hate the Bush haters."'
Ultimately, history -- not election-year spin -- will be the judge of the Administration's pre-September 11 readiness and its post-September 11 reaction. It will be years before all of the memoirs are written and the top-secret communications unsealed. The more immediate concern for Bush and Kerry, of course, is the vote in November. While polls measuring either candidates' honesty did not budge much in the week that Clarke went public with his revelations, that could change in the wake of his testimony before the congressional commission investigating the September 11 attacks.
That's why the White House has been so aggressive about calling into question Clarke's motives and the timing of the release of his book. Indeed, trying to tear down the 30-year civil servant's reputation has become Job One for many Administration bigs, from Vice-President Dick Cheney on down. "If you left what [Clarke] said to stand, it might contribute to a credibility problem," says Republican strategist Charles R. Black. "But since we're engaging on the issue, and pointing out what the President did about terrorism from the day he took office, it's not going to be much of an issue by next week."
Maybe. But taking on Clarke carries its own risks. Far from being "out of the loop," as Cheney charged, Clarke was asked by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to run a key meeting in the White House Situation Room on September 11, even as Cheney and Rice hustled to their bunker. And some Republican operatives privately admit that the ugly portrait of Clarke as a disloyal grandstander is being embellished to score political points. While noting that Clarke clearly wants to sell books and the controversy can't hurt, a former Bush adviser calls the former counterterrorism chief "a capable guy."
What's more, allegations of White House dissembling since the run-up to war with Iraq have taken a toll on Bush's once-solid image as the refreshing antidote to previous Presidential prevarication. The percentage of Americans who believe that the President is honest and trustworthy has slipped from 71% in July, 2002, to 54% in March, according to ABC News/Washington Post polls. "He was the straight-shooter out of Texas," says pollster Thomas H. Riehle, president of Ipsos U.S. Public Affairs. "Not anymore."
That doesn't mean the Dems can celebrate yet. While the Clarke revelations could still come back to haunt the Administration, few voters seem swayed so far. Polls show that the President's reputation for honesty actually inched up in recent weeks -- likely the result of pro-Bush TV spots in 18 battleground states.
The problem is, if even a small slice of the public takes Bush's recent critics to heart, the President could lose the support of key swing voters. Among those voters, says Riehle, single men find Kerry more credible, married white women trust Bush more, and suburbanites split right down the middle. The voters who will decide the election, says Riehle, are the 20% of Americans who are "delighted we went into Iraq but are sure he is a liar." In other words, Bush's perceived fibs may be less important in the end than his agenda.
In a 50/50 nation, Democrats think they can create enough doubt about Bush's credibility to tip the balance their way. But as Bill Clinton proved, it's not a spotless reputation for integrity that wins elections -- it's results.
By Richard S. Dunham
With Stan Crock in Washington