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Slate's Politics: Re-Selling the War in Iraq


But first, as the Iraq war heads into its fourth year, President Bush is giving another in his series of speeches pushing his upbeat message on the war.

CHADWICK: At the City Club of Cleveland, Ohio, today, Mr. Bush said this.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: In the face of continued reports about killings and reprisals, I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken. Others look at the violence they see each night on their television screens and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq. They wonder what I see that they don't.

BRAND: Today the violence in Iraq continued. At least seven Iraqi policemen were killed in roadside bombings. And more evidence today of mass executions. Fourteen bullet-riddled bodies were found in Baghdad.

CHADWICK: The daily violence has led more and more people to conclude that the country is now in a civil war. Yesterday, Iraq's former Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi joined that group. Here's what he said to the BBC.

Mr. AYAD ALLAWI (Former Interim Prime Minister, Iraq): It's unfortunate that we are in a civil war, we are losing a day an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is.

CHADWICK: But speaking on CBS' Face the Nation, Vice President Dick Cheney disagreed with Mr. Allawi.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: Clearly there is an attempt underway by the terrorists to foment civil war. That's been their strategy all along. But my view would be they've reached a stage of desperation from their standpoint that is a reflection of the fact that they are doing everything they can to stop the formation of a democratically elected government.

BRAND: Joining us for our regular chat about Monday morning politics is John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate.

And John, as we've just heard, there are competing ideas about whether or not Iraq has entered a civil war. What are the political consequences of that distinction for President Bush?

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Chief Political Correspondent, Slate): Well, the political consequences are that the President can look, potentially, out of touch. One of the -- Americans are very down on this war and they don't trust his handling of it. And so if the American public, and the American public does believe there's a civil war going on in Iraq, and they see the President and Vice President saying, no, there's not a civil war, there's a tendency for them to think that their leaders are out of touch and continue to have that negative view of their stewardship of the war.

They don't trust the President. The best thing that the White House can say is that the country, when asked about the Democrats and their ability to handle Iraq, don't give the Democrats as a party much more faith.

But on the other hand, the Democrats aren't in control. And the President has very bad poll numbers on the question of Iraq.

BRAND: Why is it that Senator Russ Feingold's idea to censure the President for the eavesdropping, the NSA eavesdropping program, why is it that that did not gain traction among Democrats, do you think?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, Democrats are nervous. They think they've got the President on the ropes on a number of different issues beyond just the Iraq war. And so they're a little angry, some of them, in Washington, that Senator Feingold would go back to the one issue where the President may have a national, well, in fact does have, some strength.

When you ask Americans in polls, do you think it's okay to listen in on phone conversations, they tend to back the President. It also is a position in which Democrats tend to be on the side of the complications and legalities, whereas the President is on the side of basically being able to say, look, I'm protecting you.

Now, these are political realities. Democrats out in the country say, wait a minute, Senator Feingold is standing up for a principle here and that's what we want from our politicians.

So there's a split in the Democratic party over all of this. And that makes some Democrats unhappy because they thought they were having a pretty good run of it for the moment.

BRAND: And meanwhile some Republicans are running for reelection, notably Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who has agreed to invite the President to campaign for him. Is that a good idea?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, Santorum has had a kind of spotty record with showing up with the President. And each candidate is deciding whether they want their election to be about local issues or whether they want them to be about national issues.

It is, generally, though, still for a Republican, it's a good idea to have the President come. Though his numbers have slipped recently in his own party, the President still has extraordinary support among Republicans. And he can raise a lot of money. When the President comes to town, people tend to open their wallets. And that's what candidates need.

So it's still a smart move for a candidate to have the President come. It rallies the base. And you just hope that you can balance any negativity from independents or swing voters with your own message, which will balance out the President's national negative poll numbers.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine, Slate. Thanks, John.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.