Mark Schmitt is pointing

Mark Schmitt is pointing our attention exactly where it should be: Be warned. The White House is now telling us that engineering a confrontation with Iran is a key part of their plan to resuscitate the president’s dismal approval ratings in time to survive election day.

And this is probably as good a time as any to address the question we hear more and more from Democrats: how do we prepare for whatever it is Karl Rove has cooked up this election season? How do Democrats or this or that Democratic candidate ‘inoculate’ themselves from this year’s version of the Swift Boat scam?

With respect, this is loser talk. The ‘how will we defend ourselves’ conversation is an example of the malady itself masquerading as the cure to the disease.

On a battlefield there is a name for armies that spend all their time and energy planning and conditioning themselves to defend against their opponents’ attacks. They’re called defeated armies. You defend yourself when and where you must. But you do everything you can to maintain the initiative. And that pretty much always means bringing the attack to the other side.

This isn’t just a good way to win political fights. It’s also a window into the meta-message that often makes Republican attack politics so damaging for Democrats. If you think back to the Swift Boat debacle of 2004, the surface issue was John Kerry’s honesty and bravery as a sailor in Vietnam. Far more powerful, however, was the meta-message: George Bush slaps John Kerry around and Kerry either can’t or won’t hit back. For voters concerned with security and the toughness of their leaders, that’s a devastating message — and one that has little or nothing to do with the truth of the surface charges. Someone who can’t fight for himself certainly can’t fight for you. At the time I called it the “Republicans’ bitch-slap theory of electoral politics.”

With respect to what’s coming on Iran, what is in order is a little honesty, just as was the case with the Social Security debate a year ago. The only crisis with Iran is the crisis with the president’s public approval ratings. Period. End of story. The Iranians are years, probably as long as a decade away, and possibly even longer from creating even a limited yield nuclear weapon. Ergo, the only reason to ramp up a confrontation now is to help the president’s poll numbers.

This is a powerful message because it is an accurate message. We have many challenges overseas today. Chief among them, as one of the Democrats’ senate candidates puts it, is “refocusing America’s foreign and defense policies in a way that truly protects our national interests and seeks harmony where they are not threatened.” The period of peril the country is entering into isn’t tied to an Iranian bomb. It turns on how far a desperate president will go to avoid losing control of Congress.

Go to his heart. Go to his weaknesses. Though the realization of the fact is something of a lagging indicator, the man is a laughing stock, whose lies and failures are all catching up with him.

To the president the Democrats should be saying, Double or Nothing is Not a Foreign Policy.

The great bulk of the public doesn’t believe this president any more when he tries to gin up a phony crisis. They don’t believe he’d have much of an idea of how to deal with a real one. Enough of the lies. Enough of the incompetence and failure.

No buying into another of the president’s phony crises.

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