There are many reasons President Bush has taken a narrow but perceptible lead in the polls. Some are tied to tactical decisions on both sides; others are products of accidental developments; still others emerge from more deeply-rooted trends that won't be clear for months or years.
But all of them amount to the same thing: the president's campaign has managed to take Iraq out of the election debate.
Iraq remains ever-present, but as a rhetorical fixture, not a reality. Who's tougher; who's been consistent; who likes Saddam Hussein more, and so forth -- that's all there. The increasingly tenuous claim that Saddam Hussein had any relationship to Islamic terrorism -- that's there too.
But the actual Iraq war is nowhere to be found. Sunday was a disastrous day in Iraq, both for the Iraqis and for the American enterprise in Iraq.
But it garnered little attention here. The American death rate has creeped up as the occupation has continued. And to anyone who has eyes to see it, the entire American venture in Iraq has become a disaster of truly monumental proportions.
There are many ways the Iraq war could have 'succeeded' in the American political context. If a chamber of horrors had been found in Iraq's WMD factories, Americans would have judged the war a success even if the aftermath would have been as bloody and chaotic as it is today. For most, the necessity of the invasion would have been vindicated.
The same would apply if manifest ties to al Qaida had somehow been unearthed in the rubble of the old regime.
Even with no WMD or al Qaida ties found, the enterprise might still have been vindicated on other grounds. Had the post-war period been even moderately successful in terms of stability, democratization and a pro-western stance on the part of the new government, I suspect that a majority of the public would have quickly forgiven and forgotten the failure to find the weapons which served as the pretext for war.
Yet, of course, none of these things have happened. The claim that Iraq had any meaningful ties to al Qaida style terrorism was always a tissue of falsehood and zealotry. The mistaken belief that Iraq was reconstituting a WMD capacity (though the greatest confidence was on chemical and biological weapons) was a fairly widespread failure in the American intelligence community which the White House then immeasurably inflated to whip up war sentiment. And of course post-war Iraq has been a disaster by really every measure.
The number of Americans who've died in the country still pales in comparison to the numbers lost in Vietnam. But the rate of casualities and fatalities is increasing -- notwithstanding the nominal handover of sovereignty to a caretaker government. And the current policy basically projects the current blood-letting indefinitely into the future. In more basic military terms, the US is losing the war. We are rapidly ceding large parts of the country to control by insurgents. And even major areas like Baghdad seem to be slipping out of control -- as yesterday's upsurge of violence was intended to demonstrate, and to a great degree, did demonstrate.
Back more than a year ago, when it first began to dawn on many that stabilizing, let alone democratizing, Iraq would be a great struggle, the challenge was often framed around the unacceptability of allowing Iraq to 'become another Lebanon' or descend into civil war.
Let's be honest with ourselves. That's already happened. That's the clearest reason why yesterday's violence garnered so little attention. It's not surprising any more. A year ago, when a bomber blew up the Jordanian Embassy, it sent a shock through the United States. The same was more or less the case in the bombings that followed through the rest of 2003 and into early 2004.
Iraq has quite simply become a disaster for the United States. And while people disagree over why this has happened, no thinking person can now fail to see that it has happened.
In the last two months, all of this has been pushed to the side of the election debate -- either by rhetorical tangles over 9/11 and terrorism, or attack politics centered on the two men's war records or lack thereof. That is the reason for the president's resurgence in the polls. It's really that simple.
There's another point that worth noting here too. And it's at least played a role in pushing Iraq out of the political debate. That is, that President Bush has been able to mobilize his manifest failure as a political asset, and the Kerry campaign has allowed him to do so.
Here's what I mean.
Recently, President Bush has sought -- with real success -- to edge Iraq out of the campaign dialogue by putting the issue back on to Kerry, asking what he would do differently and how it would produce a better result.
This puts Kerry in a bit of a bind because the politically-unspeakable answer here is that there are no good solutions anymore. A year ago, even six months ago, there were. Now, there really aren't.
President Bush at least has a straightforward approach: denial. Pressed to come up with a soundbite-able and practical policy, Kerry is, well ... hard-pressed.
(As I said, President Bush, in this way, has managed to derive political advantage from the magnitude of his own failure.)
Politically, Kerry needs to ignore the commentators who will press him to come up with a twenty point plan that will immediately rectify the situation in Iraq. Yes, he needs to give an idea of what he'll do if and when he takes over. But the emphasis should be on the undeniable fact that though the way forward may be murky, the last person you want to lead the country down that foggy path is the guy who screwed everything up so badly in the first place.
As my friend John Judis noted recently, the key to winning an election is often simply a matter of bringing to the surface of the public consciousness what voters already really know. They know Iraq is a disaster. They know it's President Bush's fault.
Coming Soon: two book recommendations, one about the present, another about the distant past.