Barack Obama was right a few days ago when he told some fellow Democrats to cool their zeal over launching impeachment proceedings against President George W. Bush. "You reserve impeachment for grave, grave breaches-intentional breaches of the president's authority," said the Democratic senator from Illinois, suggesting there is nothing like that in the Bush record. "Vote the bums out," he said. "That's how our system is designed."
It was one of the kindest things being said about the president-and it wasn't very kind. If you are such a Bush loyalist that you harbor doubts about the accuracy of the president's low popularity ratings, do what I did last week. Go take a poll of your own. Stand outside Wal-Mart (until you get chased off by the management), move on then to Starbucks, Lowe's, and Barnes & Noble. Bring up the subject of the war in Iraq, and you'll get an earful.
A lot of people are angry. A lot of others are sad and disappointed. They wanted to be believers, but they're not sure right now what they are supposed to believe in.
I told you in this space last week about my abortive poll outside the local Wal-Mart, where in other years I've generally found folks ready to talk amiably about a variety of subjects. Not this time. Grouchy, suspicious, cynical, evasive-the mood was foul, and I can't say I was terribly disappointed when the store's management told me it was against their policy for me to be doing a survey on their property and that I'd have to move on.
So this week I did move on to some other venues. Maybe, I thought, it was just the Wal-Mart crowd that had its nose out of joint. If I talked to 40 or 50 folks in other settings, maybe I'd find more open discussion and more ready reflection on important public-policy matters.
It wasn't to be.
My survey question was simple, straightforward, and the same in every setting: "Do you think," I asked, "that the war in Iraq is mostly about defending America from further terrorism? Or do you think it is about helping the people of Iraq restore their country and build a democracy there?"
My assumption was (and is) that to the extent folks buy the "defense-from-terrorism" justification for war, they will stick with it to the end. Indeed, in one sense, the worse things get, the more valid the cause. But if the justification for the war is to build a new and democratic Iraq, and if the Iraqis themselves seem perpetually bewildered in the process, well then-why keep spinning our wheels in the sand?
Indeed, only a tiny proportion (fewer than 10) of the total of more than 80 people I talked to over the last two weeks spoke first of the importance of defending ourselves from terrorist forces intent on destroying us. Yes, that's part of the picture for the majority-but it's not the "clear-and-present-danger" sort of issue that prompts people to drop everything else they're doing and commit themselves to the cause. That connection simply hasn't been convincingly drawn. Only a minority believes the future of the American republic to be at risk.
The majority seems to think our main reason for being in Iraq has been to reshape and democratize the Middle East. It would have been nice if it had worked, they think. But it hasn't worked, so let's cut our losses and get out. It's embarrassing and costly, but that's about all. We'll elect a Democrat-like Barack Obama-and get over it.
And why wouldn't most of the American public identify more with such a point of view? It is exactly what they've been persistently taught for the last four years by the mainstream media.
But much more inexplicably, it's also what they've been taught-implicitly and by default-by a Bush administration that has failed to use its bully pulpit to explain to the American people a critically important distinction. The public would have understood better, for example, if the president had called us to specific, if only symbolic, sacrifice. About all we've had to do so far is to take off our shoes at the airport and watch the national debt climb a bit.
If it were only the popularity of George Bush-or any president, for that matter-that were at stake, that might be passingly sad. But to see big majorities of the American public so casually dismiss the future security of their own country is scary indeed.