Monday, October 11, 2004

"We all have said 'Ooh, that was a dumb decision, here's what I have to do to fix it."

We all have said 'Ooh, that was a dumb decision, here's what I have to do to fix it.:
"'I'm no more near a decision now than I was this time yesterday,' said Linda Grabel, a 63-year-old legal secretary who asked Mr. Bush at the end of the debate whether he could name 'three instances where you realized you made a wrong decision and what you did to correct it.'"

She said it appeared that Mr. Bush misunderstood her question and believed she was talking about the Iraq war when she was, in fact, speaking far more generally.

"We all have said 'Ooh, that was a dumb decision, here's what I have to do to fix it,' " she added. "I wanted to know: Give me some of those decisions, what were they, and how did you fix them?"

After a month in which much of the debate between the two men has been driven by Iraq, Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry spoke extensively about the domestic issues that Democrats had once hoped would form the undergirding of the campaign.

The two men repeatedly clashed over health care, a central issue for Mr. Kerry, who has proposed a major expansion of health coverage through subsidies to employers and enrolling more children and low-income adults in the public programs. Mr. Bush asserted that the program would inevitably lead to higher taxes, asking, scornfully: "He says he's going to have a novel health care plan. You know what it is? The federal government's going to run it. It is the largest increase in federal government health care ever.''

Mr. Kerry, whose plan does not involve a federal takeover of health care, replied: "Labels don't mean anything. What means something is, do you have a plan?"

Until sometime early in the summer, President Bush and his advisers sporadically wrestled with a fundamental choice: Was it smarter to go into the final months of the election campaign confessing to considerable error in decisions leading up to the invasion of Iraq, and in early calculations about how best to occupy the country? Or would the president - "not a man given to backward-looking introspection," as one close aide put it - be better off conceding only the smallest errors of judgment, and focusing the electorate on the hope of a bright future for Iraq and the whole Middle East?

Mr. Bush chose the second option. To choose otherwise, one of Mr. Bush's advisers said the other day, would be "to give John Kerry the opening he was waiting for."

But now, in the final 23 days of the campaign, that decision has come to look far riskier than it did in the flush of handing Iraq back to Iraqis. Win or lose, when the history of the 2004 Bush campaign is written, it may turn out that the bet about how to talk about the war will prove pivotal. Mr. Bush held his bet through the presidential debate Friday, declining a questioner's invitation to describe any mistake he had made.

The bet was a mix of political and military calculation, of Mr. Bush's own temperament, and of what proved to be an overly optimistic projection of what Iraq would look like in early October.

By Friday, aides at the White House were talking about the decision in the way Silicon Valley engineers talk about a piece of technology that didn't roll out as planned.

In June, just before reluctantly appointing a commission to investigate what had gone wrong with the intelligence about Mr. Hussein's weaponry, Mr. Bush chose not to issue a mea culpa of his own. "We discussed it, but no one could quite figure out the words," a senior adviser said. "How do you do that, without seeming to undercut the troops who are out there every day? Do you say, 'if we had known he had no stockpiles, we wouldn't have invaded?' I don't think so, and it's not something that the president believes."

The closest Mr. Bush came to conceding having made any mistake was when he used the word "miscalculation" in an interview with The New York Times in late August. But even then, he said he was referring only to having misjudged the speed with which Iraqi forces would collapse, which he said allowed Mr. Hussein's sympathizers to melt into cities and towns and fight another day.

Back in June, it also looked as if the situation in Iraq would look better by autumn. The Iraqis would be racing toward elections, the calculation went, and the American military forces, in support of a new Iraqi force, would be coming up with plans to root out the insurgency. In fact, White House officials say, in the first days of July they were hoping to issue new orders to American troops that would eliminate all-American patrols on the streets, thus significantly reducing casualties and making it clear that Iraqis were providing their own security.

"It never happened," one senior official said, "because the Iraqis were not ready."

The American military may be getting ready for such measures now, but perhaps not in time for Election Day. Rather, American casualties have risen every month since early summer, a fact that softened the political ground for the new questions about how prepared Mr. Bush was for the realities of Iraq. And that ended up obscuring, at least for the moment, Mr. Bush's punch line that "Senator Kerry has a strategy for retreat, and I have a strategy for victory."

Mr. Bush's decision to hang tough has echoes of the strategy used by another president from Texas.…
con·cept: "We all have said 'Ooh, that was a dumb decision, here's what I have to do to fix it."