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Why'd Bush speak right now?

September 13, 2007 |  7:57 pm

President Bush spoke to the nation tonight. It was his eighth speech on the Iraq war in recent weeks. And it lasted 17 minutes.

Predictably, he accepted the troop drawdown proposal of Gen. David Petraeus to get some 5,700 U.S. troops out by Christmas and more than 21,000 by next summer. And equally predictably, Democrats, especially those who would like to live in the White House, found immediate fault with the president's remarks. Yada yada yada.

(By the way, did you too notice the initial absence of Hillary Clinton among the chorus of critics? It's not due to any natural reticence. Tomorrow night is her big Hollywood fundraiser at Magic Johnson's house.)

But why did Bush bother to speak tonight?

It's tempting for sure. Strike while the iron is hot and all the political talk is about war progress. But from a strategic communications point of view, his speech tonight was both unnecessary and counterproductive.

The president's standing in the polls is low, which he really doesn't place much stock in, but is still indicative of a broad social attitude. A majority of Americans now think the Iraq war was a mistake. And if they've been unpersuaded by seven recent Bush speeches, yet one more today seems rather unlikely to swing the tide.

The president is a lame duck without his loyal Texans and with little leverage confronting a resurgent Democratic party controlling both houses of Congress and smelling victory in '08. But Congress has an even lower poll rating in part because the newly elected Democrats promised too much last fall and led fervent followers to believe they could actually end the war. They've got their own large political problem now.

That was their mistake. Speaking tonight was Bush's.

He had already won the week, not through his own efforts but through the straightforward testimony and credibility of two professionals, Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker. Their convincing words had strengthened the resolve of the Republican minority to stick with the president's surge strategy, at least for a few more months, because it looks like we're winning. As commentator Charles Krauthammer has so perfectly put it, "Americans are not anti-war. They're anti-losing wars."

More importantly perhaps, this week's testimony had put Democrats on the defensive with their base and changed the topic of conversation away from an unpopular president to a well-postured, bemedaled general who spoke in measured tones, endured endless political pontificating by panelists who offered their pre-written comments before the witness spoke and answered every question to the best of his experienced ability.

The persuasive hours of testimony by Petraeus and Crocker, even encapsulated in brief TV sound bites for the short attention span of most Americans, had bought the president's surge strategy some more months possibly to show even more success. The next report to Congress comes in March.

This testimony and the campaign fights over the "Gen. Betray Us" newspaper ad of MoveOn.org, would have dominated the Capitol's and media chatter for days, certainly through the ponderous Sunday news talk shows, which seem to take the nation's political temperature each week. So let the paint of that positive impression dry for 10 days or so. Then give your speech accepting the recommendations.

No.

Instead, the president re-inserted himself into the line of fire with a typically well-crafted speech that covers all the bases. But more importantly, Bush put himself back front and center as the delicious, detested, unifying target of Democrats, who couldn't take on the general and no longer have Alberto Gonzales and Karl Rove to kick around. All Bush had to do was let them stew in their own juices while the revolt on the left simmers. What could the Democrats have done with no soft obvious targets and an impatient political base?

Suddenly, the president offers himself up. How perfect!

Now, watch and listen and read as they fire away.

At the end of his remarks this evening, Bush said: "It is never too late to deal a blow to Al Qaeda. It is never too late to advance freedom. And it is never too late to support our troops in a fight they can win."

All of which may well be true. But the fact is though, from a strategic communications point of view, it was a week too early for him to get into all that.

--Andrew Malcolm

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