Terror backlash hits Bush's votes
The damning testimony of former terrorism adviser Richard Clarke has left the President's team in disarray as their approval ratings begin to fall
Paul Harris in New York
Sunday March 28, 2004
Republicans fear the devastating revelations about their failure to see al-Qaeda as an imminent threat before the 11 September terrorist attacks have seriously dented President George Bush's election campaign.
At the end of a week of hugely damaging publicity surrounding the allegations made by Bush's former anti-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke, Bush's rating has taken a dive in key opinion polls.
Pollsters Rasmussen put Democratic challenger John Kerry three points ahead of Bush by 47 points to 44. That dramatically reversed a four per cent Bush lead just a week ago. The pollsters put the change down to the fallout from Clarke's claims. At the same time respected firm Zogby logged Bush's approval ratings as slipping to an all-time low of 46 per cent.
Strategists on both sides know there are still seven months to go before election day, but Democratic planners are celebrating a week of hits on the Republicans. 'The Richard Clarke story is going to go on and on,' said Larry Haas, a former aide to Bill Clinton.
The events, compounded by Clarke's emotional testimony before a government commission into 11 September, were especially bad for Republicans after a week when Kerry's campaign had run into a series of gaffes. Pundits had been lauding the Republicans for getting their own stuttering campaign on track when Clarke's bombshells promptly derailed it.
White House officials were on the defensive as the media focused on allegations they had not done enough to protect America. That was compounded by jokes Bush cracked at a Washington dinner, mocking his own inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Bush's laughing face was plastered on the front page of the New York Daily News under the headline: 'WMD Joke Flap'.
But the key to the week was Clarke. Terrorism advisor to four presidents, he played himself as the conscience-stricken whistle blower. Bush's security advisor Condoleezza Rice suffered particularly badly as Clarke claimed she had stymied his efforts to raise the importance of fighting terrorism. Rice, who has refused to testify in public before the 11 September commission, was forced into asking to appear before it in private to rebut Clarke's charges.
The effect was to attack the Bush campaign at the heart of its re-election strategy: fighting the War on Terror. Democrats want to fight the election on the economy and jobs but Clarke delivered massive blows to the Republican's main platform of national security forcing Bush's team unexpectedly on the defensive. Clarke's book, Against All Enemies, now tops bestseller lists across America. More than 500,000 copies have been printed - a huge amount for a political non-fiction work.
The White House has fought back ferociously portraying Clarke as a man out to sell books and make a partisan political point. Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist accused Clarke of 'an appalling act of profiteering' and lambasted his 'theatrical apology' to the 11 September families. Republicans have begun a move to declassify two-year-old secret testimony Clarke gave to intelligence committees in the hope they differ markedly from what he has published in his memoir. If they do they will accuse Clarke of lying under oath to Congress.
However, many top Republicans privately said they would soon seek to move the campaign on to different issues as they admitted to the damage done by Clarke. 'It will blow over. We'll move on to something else,' said Charles Black, a Republican senior advisor.
So far Kerry has kept out of the fray. With so much vitriol being flung around, the fact he was on holiday when the story broke looks fortuitous. Many experts believe the strength of the White House attack on Clarke could itself damage the Republicans. 'The reason they are losing this fight is they are showing no grace, no sincere effort to learn. All they have left is an attack and we already know they are plenty tough,' said Haas.
The danger of negative campaigning is particularly strong in this election. New laws force candidates to personally endorse their adverts, making overly aggressive advertising harmful to their image. Despite this both sides have gone negative very early, largely due to the knife-edge nature of the election.
Both parties believe in the '50-50' America where few opinions have shifted from the narrow result of the 2000 election. In this scenario Bush is still probably the favourite, but by a narrow margin.
'It is his to lose, but the Republicans are worried,' said Shaun Bowler, politics professor at the University of California. That is why the fallout from the Clarke book has been taken so seriously.
And worse is to come. In a few months former diplomat Joseph Wilson, will publish his book, an account of the build-up to the war in Iraq, called The Politics of Truth. Wilson last summer accused the White House of ignoring evidence in its efforts to show Iraq had WMD. The White House responded by leaking the identity of Wilson's wife, an undercover CIA operative.
That scandal led to a criminal investigation of White House staff, which is still ongoing. Clarke's book is just be the start of a long summer of revelations.