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Inside Politics

When credibility becomes an issue


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As the 2004 campaign kicks up, the Administration finds its word questioned on several fronts. TIME looks at Bush's predicament—and his counterattack

Five years ago, when a President was fighting for his political life, his defenders struggled to keep his sins in perspective.

All he did was lie about sex, they said of Bill Clinton's breach of trust—it's not as if he had been fooling around with matters of war and peace. Imagine how ugly a debate like that could become over the issues that matter most, matters of life and death.

For a President, trust is the one asset that, once lost, he can't buy back. This may be especially true for George W. Bush, whose appeal has always been personal as much as political. People say they like him because he's tough and straight and principled, even if they sometimes disagree with the principles themselves.

It now seems likely that either Bush wasn't telling the truth about his reasons for going to war or he didn't know the truth and can't quite admit it. Neither prospect is very reassuring. "Is it harmful to the President? Absolutely," says Christopher Shays, a Republican Representative from Connecticut, about the cracks that have opened in the case for war. "The thing that this President had going for him before Iraq was, you may not have agreed with Iraq, but you believed what he told you."

Which is how it came to pass that over the course of four days last week the White House staged a revival meeting with the full choir singing in his defense as the President performed the rites of political redemption.

For the skeptics, he named a commission to explore the intelligence failures and included his eternal scold Senator John McCain to sanctify it. He bowed before U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the Oval Office in an admission that the deadlock in Iraq could not be broken without his help. For the believers, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told lawmakers on the Hill that those weapons might still be found; CIA chief George Tenet defended his intelligence by suggesting there's no such thing as perfection in his business; and the apostate Colin Powell was back in his pew after suggesting he might have some doubts about how we got here.

The message from all sides was essentially this: We weren't wrong, and if we were, no one can prove it. Bush himself chose to walk into the lion's den, sitting down with Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press. Russert told the President there was a sense among voters that the intelligence on Iraq had been manipulated and that the nation had rushed to war. Bush defended his decision making: "I'm just trying to make sure you understand the context in which I was making decisions. He had used weapons. He had manufactured weapons. He had funded suicide bombers. He had terrorist connections. In other words, all of those ingredients said to me, threat."

The White House's rapid response efforts were inspired by warnings that the public faith in the President seemed to be faltering. A TIME/CNN poll found that only 44% described Bush as "a leader you can trust," while 55% said they "had some doubts and reservations."

Bush's approval rating held steady at 54%, but in a head-to-head match-up, Democratic front runner John Kerry had closed to within two points of Bush among probable voters, with Bush leading 50% to 48%. All this has Democrats swarming, their stingers sharpened for campaign season.

"There is a credibility chasm," declared Senate minority leader Tom Daschle on Friday, "whether it is weapons of mass destruction, whether it is the budget, whether it is so many things that emanate these days from this Administration, its credibility has eroded dramatically."

That's not the kind of thing that Republicans would say publicly, but they are saying it in private. It's not just the national-security hawks who fear that missteps in Iraq may tie the President's hands everywhere else.

Fiscal conservatives see red at all the red ink, libertarians twitch at each new intrusion into personal liberty, and all see a Democratic Party fiercely uniting behind a plausible candidate instead of the choleric cartoon they had been counting on.

All Presidents have bad weeks, but Bush, as a wartime President in an age of terrorism, has enjoyed goodwill and the benefit of the doubt. But last week members of his party were ready to challenge his judgment, signaling a change in the climate at the very moment the 2004 campaign was beginning for real.

If the Democrats are right that a lot of voters are now more worried about getting sick or getting fired than about getting blown up, then the armor Bush has been wearing for 2 1/2 years may protect him less than it weighs him down. A Republican who travels the country sees the weaknesses in Bush's message: "Bush says the economy is getting better, and he's right, but no one feels it. And he says the war isn't over, and he's right there too, but nobody cares anymore."

Bush's campaign team is taking the long view. "The Democrats have spent $126 million telling the American people their vision for the future is they don't like George Bush," says telecommuting adviser Karen Hughes from Austin, Texas. "This kind of thing always has a short-term effect on the polls."

But outside the inner circle, others were less sanguine. A longtime ally in a battleground state said the Bush team was reading its own press releases and was out of touch with the country. Another, on the West Coast, put it this way: "He doesn't have a message. It's the same old rhetoric of two years ago. They are acting like they deserve re-election."

Behind all the maneuvering on both sides was a growing sense of how much had gone wrong, how serious the cost, how great the risk if people in a democracy do not know who or what to believe. The idea that the U.S. might have gone to war on weak intelligence and a bad hunch damages not just the President's authority but the country's.

"Our credibility is a precious national-security asset, and now we have to rehabilitate it," says Senator Evan Bayh, a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees. "The American people understand how you can make a mistake. What they won't understand is a refusal to admit the mistake you make. Or take steps to make sure it doesn't happen again."


Tucked away somewhere in the White House, maybe down in the basement fridge, is a vat of Kool-Aid and a little stack of Dixie cups reserved for the true believers. Every Administration brews the stuff, but each makes it differently. Some stir in strong convictions, some just sweet loyalty.

Whatever the mix, the motive is the same: to instill in all who drink it an unshakable faith in the man and his mission, infuse discipline and ensure a second term. Belief runs so strong in this White House that when the President found himself with a suddenly serious credibility problem, his faithful were among the last to see it. "The White House's biggest problem is that there's been too much hubris," says Shays. "It's getting in the way of being rational."

Bush's troubles all came together in the space of a month, a perfect winter storm. The President had had a spectacular December, watching his ratings soar as Saddam Hussein was captured, the economy grew at 4% and he pulled a Medicare bill out of his hat in the final days of the last session of Congress. Howard Dean, meanwhile, appeared to have won the hearts of Democrats—if not the minds—which promised the campaign of Karl Rove's dreams.

But then came January and the ill winds. Bush's fired Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill greeted the President in the New Year with revelations in a tell-all book that made Bush out to be at best incurious and at worst deceitful, bent on war with Iraq from the very first days in office.

The manned mission to Mars was rolled out with a flourish and then muted when the polls showed people thought it was a ridiculous waste of money. Bush's State of the Union address seemed, even to sympathetic Republicans, to have been mailed in, with the vision of a grocery list. His popularity numbers dropped after he gave it. Next came the admission by the Administration's handpicked weapons hunter, David Kay, that after hundreds of interviews and months of hunting, we had not found any weapon stockpiles after all.

Nor was the link between Saddam and al-Qaeda ever proved. Meanwhile, that much vaunted Medicare bill, which deficit hawks already found impossibly expensive at $400 billion, will probably cost an additional $134 billion. By the time the President released his $2.4 trillion budget last week, packing record $521 billion deficits and a promise to reduce them 50% in five years, it was hard to know what to believe anymore.

All the while the Democrats were managing that rare feat: selecting a nominee without destroying him in the process. By focusing their fire on Bush more than on one another, Democrats were succeeding in making the nomination process one long, free commercial attacking the President from every direction in one swing state after another.

Dean's broadsides, in which he called the Bush White House not just a failure but "the most dangerous Administration in my lifetime," served the dual purpose of channeling the anger of the Democratic base while letting the other candidates sound almost measured in comparison.

It was not just the attacks from outside that roused Team Bush to action; it was the whiff of mutiny from within. Secretary of State Colin Powell, says a longtime ally, "went out to the CIA a year ago and personally went through every piece of intelligence. He's very concerned now about his own credibility."

After Powell told the Washington Post that he didn't know if he would have recommended going to war had he known then that there were no stockpiles of weapons after all, the White House had no choice but to speak out—and fast. Bush allies widely believe that Powell, never a Kool-Aid drinker, has one foot out the door and is polishing his credentials accordingly.

"The Powellites think Bush is going to lose the election, and they think he's going to lose because of the war that they opposed," a Bush loyalist says. "They want to win the ideological contest." But whatever Powell's motives, the White House believed that if the Secretary's doubts had been left out there, unanswered, for more than 24 hours, other Republicans would soon have piled on. "The Powell comment caused them to get mad enough to decide they were going to fight back, every day, aggressively, rather than let the problem take care of itself."


First to charge was Rumsfeld, who offered the House and Senate Armed Services Committees no new facts but a whole postgraduate course in theories of where Saddam's weapons went: maybe they were hidden; maybe Saddam moved them to another country; maybe he destroyed them at the last minute; maybe his scientists tricked him into believing he had a bigger arsenal than he had.

"Well," Rumsfeld concluded in his testimony before the Senate, "we'll learn more about those various theories in the weeks and months ahead," sounding calm and reasoned as he tiptoed backward out of the saloon before he really got beat up.

CIA chief Tenet, in a rare public speech at Georgetown University, made the more cogent—and contrite—argument, admitting that spying is a game of percentages. "In the intelligence business, you are almost never completely wrong or completely right ... like many of the toughest intelligence challenges, when the facts of Iraq are all in, we will neither be completely right nor completely wrong."

Bush called him afterward, says a White House official, to say he had heard it was a good speech.

While Rumsfeld and Tenet were defending the process that led to war, the President defended its outcome. He continued his tour of Democratic primary states, visiting South Carolina to scrub off all the anti-Bush graffiti left by the Democrats, who had been denouncing him at every turn. Saddam may not have had those weapons, he said, but he had the means, the knowledge, the infrastructure and the willingness to make and use them. "Knowing what I knew then and knowing what I know today," he declared, "America did the right thing in Iraq."

But that was not enough to satisfy the Senators who voted to authorize a war because of warnings that now appear to have been overdrawn. Senators from both parties are so disturbed by the faulty intelligence—and concerned about their own vulnerability—that they are considering going into a closed session to discuss the implications of Kay's findings, a response usually used only when national security is at stake. The President's decision, after some initial resistance, to name a special commission to investigate the intelligence failures, did little to appease them. He handpicked its members, gave it instructions to survey the whole subject of weapons intelligence—not just that in Iraq—and set as its deadline March 2005.

Bush's panel was not chartered to question how the intelligence was used—but a Senate investigation might. Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee weighed a request by its top Democrat, Jay Rockefeller, calling for the Senate's probe of the CIA's Iraq intelligence to be broadened to examine whether Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other Administration officials hyped or otherwise mischievously handled the evidence to build support for the war. Chairman Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, postponed action on Rockefeller's motion for at least a week while Roberts measured the mood in his ranks. As a possible concession to the Democrats, Roberts has agreed to investigate the Pentagon's secretive Office of Special Plans, the shadow spy service that was assembled by neoconservatives who were determined to oust Saddam. Democrats want to study charges that Special Plans gamed prewar intelligence or sent questionable material directly to Cheney or other top officials.

The stakes are only growing as the situation in Iraq worsens. On Tuesday U.N. Secretary-General Annan was at the White House, being fed a venison chop and fruit-tart soufflé, when he was asked ever so politely whether he could just take the whole Iraq mess off the U.S.'s hands.

Bush is sticking to his July 1 deadline for transferring power to the Iraqis through a complex scheme of 18 regional caucuses—a plan hatched in November without the U.N. in the room. But Shi'ites are holding out for direct elections, and the Iraqi Governing Council suggests that it expand from 25 to 125 members so it could stay around a while longer, though the likelihood of the Council suddenly being able to agree on anything would probably not be enhanced by inflating it fivefold.

Bush is hoping the U.N. can break the impasse. "Everyone understands that, yes, the U.S. now needs the U.N. more," says a senior U.N. official. "The Secretary-General wants to help the Iraqi people, which also turns out to be helpful to the Americans. No one can afford for Iraq to fail, even if it means bailing out Washington."

Annan agreed to send a U.N. team to Iraq to try to work out a solution, but time and history are not on Bush's side. "I will tell you right now, I believe there will be civil war in Iraq come July," warns retired General Anthony Zinni, an opponent of the war who, as chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000, commanded all U.S. military forces in the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions.

Powell did his penance as well, heading to New York City to meet with, among others, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. A year after the Secretary's famous presentation of the case for war, Powell was asked whether he owed the U.N. an apology. He replied that he didn't think any apologies were needed because his arguments were based on CIA intelligence that represented the "best judgment we had."

Annan noted with satisfaction that Powell and his French rival were having a friendly lunch and offered a candid assessment of the toll on U.S. credibility. "Of course, there has been some damage," he said. "Damage that will probably take some time to heal. People are going to be very suspicious when one talks to them about intelligence ... The bar has been raised as to how you convince people, whether your own nationals or the international community."


Any of those challenges might have been manageable alone. The problem was that each news cycle brought a new question about Bush's judgment and candor, which the Democrats lost no time exploiting. Fiscal conservatives had been howling for months about a budget that seemed totally out of control.

When Bush unveiled his actual numbers to Congress on Monday, it was hard to find anyone willing to take them seriously. "I can't imagine," Senator Daschle declared, "a more irresponsible document than what we have been sent this week. If anyone—anyone—would do this in real life, they would be in bankruptcy court within a year."

The White House surely found it harder to brush off the equally brutal assessment of the budget coming from Bush's Republican allies. At their annual retreat two weeks ago at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, House Republicans were feeling anything but brotherly love. Rove had his head handed to him. "People told Karl that this just can't go on," says a Republican House member who was there. "People don't feel like they're being dealt with in an honest way."

When it was Budget Director Josh Bolten's turn, the 45-minute session went on for three ugly hours. "You not only had knee-jerk conservatives like me standing up for fiscal accountability," said Mike Pence, a two-term Republican from Indiana, "but you had many moderates stand up and say we needed to put our fiscal house in order."

At a meeting with conservatives on Wednesday, Bolten was grilled on how the cost of the prescription-drug plan could have been so wrong. "You know, Josh," Pence joked, "the truth is, the new Medicare numbers could not have been more shocking if Justin Timberlake had unveiled them."

For Bush, preserving the tax cuts and swiping the Medicare-drug issue from Democrats are higher priorities than appeasing the party's spending hawks. He has been arguing that the deficit is partly the result of all the foreign challenges facing the country. "The reason we are where we are in terms of the deficit," Bush said, "is because we went through a recession, we were attacked, and we're fighting a war." But the Congressional Budget Office suggests otherwise, explaining that 36% of the deficit comes from the Bush tax cuts, 31% from spending on defense and security, and the remainder from the economic slowdown.

The deficit, which will climb from $375 billion this year to $521 billion next year, does not include the estimated $50 billion cost of the war, which the Administration will request in a supplemental-spending bill.

Having exhorted Congress to be "wise with the taxpayers' money," Bush did nod in the direction of restraint by proposing to cut 65 programs and eliminate 63 others. But in the devilish details were all sorts of contradictions. Some cuts are to programs so popular that Congress will just ignore the request.

It was difficult for Bush to defend cuts in funds for the Centers for Disease Control (8.9%) and for combatting bioterrorism in the week that ricin was being mailed to the Senate majority leader. However vital the issues of war and homeland security, there was $805 million less for emergency workers, and 210,000 veterans could see their health benefits cut. All the police departments that have relied on FBI crime labs to analyze fingerprints or hair samples will now have to pay for it.

Republican lawmakers were making unsympathetic noises. Maine Senator Olympia Snowe talked of "troubling gaps" in Bush's plan, while House Appropriations Committee chair Bill Young said flatly the numbers don't add up. Many were worried that the budget just pushes the worst problems down the road, since the costs of Social Security and Medicare will explode as the baby boomers retire.

Projected revenue losses from the Administration's tax-cut proposals over five years in this budget total $175 billion; projected losses for the five years following it are more than five times as large: $947 billion.


While Democrats are feeling emboldened, there is also the very real danger of overplaying their hand. At a four-hour strategy session for Senate Democrats last month, none other than Bill Clinton warned them to "play it straight" with Iraq-intelligence questions rather than make them overtly political.

Record turnout in all the primary states so far suggests that the party core is united. "The question is, how do you get that extra 2% or 3%," one Democratic Senator says. "My guess is that taking a meat ax to the President is not how you should go about it."

In fact, the leading Democratic candidates are using the President's troubles over Iraq and the budget to make a larger point. "I think the President has lots of credibility problems—it's not just the Kay report," says North Carolina Senator John Edwards. "He doesn't understand what's going on day-to-day. He actually talks about the economy improving when we've lost millions of jobs."

Kerry hopes to use the credibility question to reclaim issues like education, in which Bush had won an advantage. Now, Kerry never misses a chance to denounce the lack of funding for the No Child Left Behind Act. "You have to be as tired as I am watching the President go into schools and do a reading session with kids," Kerry says in his town-hall meetings.

"And then the President walks out of the schools ... knowing that they don't have enough money ... If he knows it and walks away, that's a problem. If he doesn't know it and walks away, that's another problem."

Meanwhile, at the White House and Bush-Cheney campaign headquarters in a sedate office building in Arlington, Va., all is relatively calm. A lot can happen between February and November: more bad guys captured abroad, more good economic news at home.

Pollster Matthew Dowd frequently reassures folks that the President's numbers are not unlike Ronald Reagan's in 1984 or Clinton's in 1996, that a certain weakening is to be expected as the opposition converges behind a nominee, who gets a big boost of positive press coverage.

"Just because they're out there calling us a liar doesn't make it so," says an adviser. "No one ever really thought they'd have a weak nominee, and they don't. But now we're in a debate about big ideas and big issues. This race isn't going to be about gay marriage but about the security of the country. It's not going to be like 1996 or 2000. It's about a giant debate." To which a public concerned about all that's at stake can only say, Bring it on.

—Reported by Perry Bacon Jr., Timothy J. Burger, James Carney, Matthew Cooper, Michael Duffy, Mark Thompson, Karen Tumulty, Douglas Waller and Adam Zagorin/Washington

Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

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