August 2002 had looked like the month of the vanishing presidency. The economy was tanking and the Bush administration seemed in disarray, even on its signature issue national defense.
While hawks in the Pentagon called for flat-out war on Iraq, the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency cautioned restraint. Democrats challenged the president to make his case. Even senior Republicans expressed doubts.
Then, something changed. From Labor Day to today's congressional vote on a resolution on the use of force in Iraq, the White House has dominated the agenda.
With Congress expected to strongly back President Bush's resolution, analysts say his successful recapturing of the agenda is a lesson that one should never underestimate the powers of the modern presidency or this incumbent's capacity for discipline and focus.
"You have a president who is dead set on getting his way running into an opposition that is unsure of what it is doing and afraid of making a mistake," says James Lindsay, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Early last month, as if on cue, a once-fractured administration began speaking with one voice. Top officials came to Capitol Hill to make the case for war. The president met privately with lawmakers and worked out a new, more restrained resolution: It called for military action only after diplomacy had failed. It limited action to Iraq. And it provided that Congress would be consulted before or soon after troops engaged.
Meanwhile, the issues Democrats had wanted to spend the run-up to fall elections talking about the economy, healthcare for seniors, corporate accountability, social security have been eclipsed by the prospect of war. Some Democrats privately wonder if they were lured into a brier patch. "[The Bush administration]very cleverly manufactured a divide in order to resolve it the way they did," says James Zogby, a member of the Democratic National Committee. A White House official dismisses that claim as "ridiculous."
Since the Vietnam War, national security has been a fragile point for Democrats. The transcripts of congressional debates over whether to authorize the Gulf War in 1991 are grist for 30-second campaign spots even now: Democrats who voted nay have been especially vulnerable.
Ask South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson (D), who's locked in a tight race to hold his seat. Early in his campaign, Rep. John Thune, the GOP challenger, questioned the incumbent's patriotism, citing his 1991 vote against the war.
Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, who also represents South Dakota, has been battling for Johnson. "The way [this issue] is being used in South Dakota is absolutely repulsive," he said on Tuesday.
In 1991, then-Representative Johnson was so opposed to the use of military force against Iraq that he initiated a lawsuit against then-President Bush. But this year, he was one of the first Democrats to announce support of use of force in Iraq, even before the final resolution language was drafted. "Simply put, the world would be a far safer place without Saddam Hussein," he said on Sept. 26.
Like Mr. Johnson, Senator Daschle voted against the 1991 Gulf War, citing the risk for soldiers. "They are the most important thing in the world, more important than oil and dictators, than politics," he said at the time. Now, he says he will likely vote for a resolution to use force.
Polls signal that a majority of the public still supports the possibility of an invasion of Iraq but that support drops significantly if the US goes in alone. If casualties reach 5,000, most Americans would oppose the war, according to a poll released yesterday by the Gallup Organization in Princeton, N.J.
That concern gives Democrats an opening to back force, yet distance themselves from the president by insisting on the need to build coalitions. "American leadership is more than our ability to dominate others. It is about convincing others that our power serves their interests as well as our own," says Sen. John Edwards (D) of North Carolina, in an address this week.
Still, this issue has sidelined all other Democratic priorities. "If the timing wasn't deliberate, it was certainly beneficial," says Paul Light, director of government studies at the Brookings Institution.