Dan Balz's Take
Sounding the General Election Bell
By Dan Balz
Never underestimate the power of the presidency or a sage, old voice to affect the course of politics.
From Israel on Thursday, President Bush opened the general election campaign with remarks that were widely seen as accusing, without naming, Barack Obama and Democrats of appeasing terrorists. From Washington on Friday, former Democratic National Committee chairman Robert S. Strauss gently but firmly handed Hillary Clinton her walking papers.
More than anything said so far by John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, Bush's comments honoring the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel signaled what the principle Republican attack line will be in the campaign against Obama, the likely Democratic nominee.
At a time when Bush's approval rating is at its lowest point ever in Washington Post-ABC News polls, at a time when public dissatisfaction with the direction of the country is at its highest point in 15 years, at a time when the Iraq war is deeply unpopular and at a time when economic anxieties continue to rise, national security and the terrorism remain the Republicans' strongest card against Obama.
The Illinois senator has faced this criticism even in the Democratic nomination battle. Clinton has repeatedly challenged his foreign policy views as naive or misguided, particularly his position that he is prepared to meet without conditions with leaders of rogue nations, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But nothing carries the power of the president's words, especially when they are so unexpected and in such an incongruous setting. "Some seem to believe we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along," Bush told members of the Israeli Knesset. "We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is -- the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."
White House officials tried again Friday to walk back from the remarks. Ed Gillespie told reporters traveling with the president that he and others were surprised that the remarks were seen as an attack on Obama. "We did not anticipate that it would be taken that way," he said.
When a reporter asked, "You weren't happy with the fact that it was seen as a swipe against Obama, Gillespie replied, "Again, I'm not happy or unhappy." He added that what the White House is most concerned about is the vehement reaction among Democratic congressional leaders, saying he was "not sure what it is that they take exception to, or where they see a difference from what the president said."
Gillespie's explanations came far too late to defuse what may be remembered as the most unexpected salvo of the general election, a moment when Democratic leaders coalesced around Obama to defend him (and themselves) against what they perceived as outrageous criticism from the president.
Obama responded Friday noon at a town hall meeting in South Dakota by denouncing the president and accusing McCain of being in the president's hip pocket when it comes to foreign policy.
Obama charged Bush and McCain with making "dishonest, divisive attacks" on him and other Democrats. "That's exactly the kind of appalling attack that's divided our country and that alienates us from the world," he said. "That's why we need change in Washington. That's part of the reason I'm running for president of the United States."
At the same time, he said he welcomed and would win a debate with McCain and the Republicans over foreign policy "because George Bush and John McCain have a lot to answer for."
Obama ought to be prepared for this debate, because it is central to McCain's hopes of winning the White House. Put aside the issue of Swiftboating tactics, which Democrats will claim about such criticism. The real question is how Obama will demonstrate that he is ready and able to protect the country, that he has the judgment, toughness, and the vision to be commander in chief.
Clinton has called those credentials into question; McCain will be far more relentless in doing so. Obama will need more than counterpunching and calls for civility if he intends to win that argument.
What was also notable about the reaction to the Bush comments was that no one in the party thought to suggest that the president was in any way talking about both Clinton and Obama. The New York senator was an afterthought in the reactions of her Democratic colleagues. Perhaps that was because they felt she needed no protection against such charges. More likely it was because they no longer see her as a viable candidate for the nomination.
Clinton is determined to continue on her campaign until the primaries end in little more than two weeks. Many of her supporters, particularly her female supporters, hate the idea that she is somehow being pushed out of the race before she is ready to leave. That is something Obama and other Democrats must be attuned to in the days ahead.
Enter Bob Strauss -- "Mr. Democrat" -- and his op-ed piece in Friday's Washington Post. Strauss has not taken sides in the nomination battle and he doesn't often step into the middle of intraparty politics, but he speaks with a powerful voice still, and he let Clinton know that she risks great damage to the party if she does not handle the coming days properly.
"Having put our party back together after the 1972 convention, I know that every week of delay tempts a hardening of irreconcilable differences," he wrote. "If we are to win for American, the Democratic Party has to unite now." As if that were not clear enough, another line put an exclamation point behind his views: "The [nomination] process has been played, and it has been played out."
So in 24 hours, due to Bush and Strauss, the general election bell has sounded, as has the closing bell on the Democratic nomination race. Battle joined for Obama and McCain, for Democrats and Republicans, and a kindly warning to Clinton to use care as she carries on.
Posted at 1:04 PM ET on May 16, 2008
Dan Balz's Take
Share This: Technorati | Tag in Del.icio.us | Digg This
Previous: Rubin Accuses McCain of Hypocrisy | Next: Obama Fires Back at Bush, McCain
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: Jonathan Koomey | May 16, 2008 7:16 PM
Posted by: Robert Hewson | May 16, 2008 7:10 PM
Posted by: Lesley | May 16, 2008 6:35 PM
Posted by: Mark W. | May 16, 2008 6:27 PM
Posted by: tara | May 16, 2008 6:04 PM
Posted by: joey | May 16, 2008 6:01 PM
Posted by: Gio | May 16, 2008 4:52 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | May 16, 2008 4:43 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | May 16, 2008 4:36 PM
Posted by: Stanley J. Suser | May 16, 2008 4:35 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | May 16, 2008 4:33 PM
Posted by: when Fox News viewers drink... | May 16, 2008 4:33 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | May 16, 2008 4:32 PM
Posted by: phil6 | May 16, 2008 4:29 PM
Posted by: When feminists drink.... | May 16, 2008 4:27 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | May 16, 2008 4:23 PM
Posted by: Obama2008 | May 16, 2008 4:21 PM
Posted by: Gio | May 16, 2008 4:19 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | May 16, 2008 4:13 PM
Posted by: ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead | May 16, 2008 4:11 PM
Posted by: Hillary Simply the Best | May 16, 2008 4:00 PM
Posted by: tom | May 16, 2008 3:55 PM
Posted by: aaron | May 16, 2008 3:51 PM
Posted by: rationalthinker | May 16, 2008 3:25 PM
Posted by: JeremyG | May 16, 2008 3:21 PM
Posted by: thebob.bob | May 16, 2008 3:18 PM
Posted by: Obama2008 | May 16, 2008 3:13 PM
Posted by: Dick H. | May 16, 2008 3:10 PM
Posted by: JakeD | May 16, 2008 3:07 PM
Posted by: ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead | May 16, 2008 2:49 PM
Posted by: Muddy | May 16, 2008 2:47 PM
Posted by: NM Moderate | May 16, 2008 2:38 PM
Posted by: greenfun | May 16, 2008 2:35 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | May 16, 2008 2:32 PM
Posted by: Fred E. Republican | May 16, 2008 2:26 PM
Posted by: JakeD is on his third martini at the golf course... | May 16, 2008 2:19 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | May 16, 2008 2:18 PM
Posted by: This is Rat-duh's brains on drugs... | May 16, 2008 2:12 PM
Posted by: Playa | May 16, 2008 2:12 PM
Posted by: DCDave | May 16, 2008 2:12 PM
Posted by: thebob.bob | May 16, 2008 2:09 PM
Posted by: charles laffiteau | May 16, 2008 2:07 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | May 16, 2008 1:59 PM
Posted by: dyinglikeflies | May 16, 2008 1:56 PM
Posted by: Randy | May 16, 2008 1:54 PM
Posted by: Random | May 16, 2008 1:52 PM
Posted by: Kent | May 16, 2008 1:50 PM
Posted by: JakeD | May 16, 2008 1:49 PM
Posted by: Playa | May 16, 2008 1:45 PM
Posted by: dyinglikeflies | May 16, 2008 1:42 PM
Posted by: Playa | May 16, 2008 1:41 PM
Posted by: jpl | May 16, 2008 1:40 PM
Posted by: pubichaironmycokecan | May 16, 2008 1:36 PM
Posted by: RAT-The | May 16, 2008 1:35 PM
Posted by: Franky | May 16, 2008 1:34 PM
Posted by: JakeD | May 16, 2008 1:25 PM
Posted by: jpl | May 16, 2008 1:22 PM
Posted by: JakeD | May 16, 2008 1:12 PM
Posted by: Kent | May 16, 2008 1:11 PM
Posted by: JakeD | May 16, 2008 1:08 PM
Posted by: Franky | May 16, 2008 1:06 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.