"Stay the course" is a time-honored rallying cry in politics. But it has always been more a slogan than a strategy, meant to show the steadfastness of the person who shouts it rather than what he actually intends to do. More telling is when staying the course turns into "constantly changing tactics to meet the situation on the ground." That is how President Bush is now describing the battle plan in Iraq. It also pretty neatly sums up what his presidency has come to as he reaches the eve of a midterm congressional election that has turned into a referendum on Bush himself--and on a policy in Iraq that has left him more isolated than at any other point in his presidency.
The last time control of Congress was up for grabs in a midterm election, it seemed Republican candidates across the country couldn't see enough of--or be seen enough with--George W. Bush. In the closing five days of 2002, Bush swooped through 17 cities, playing to tens of thousands of voters who packed tarmacs and arenas from Aberdeen, S.D., to Blountville, Tenn. This midterm election is also turning out to be all about Bush, but it's a much lonelier experience for him. He still fills smaller rooms, especially the kind where people are willing to write five-figure checks for the privilege of lunch with a Republican President. And he's welcomed warmly in places where having local reporters point out Bush's difficulties provides a diversion from the candidate's own. But when Air Force One touches down in tightly contested congressional districts these days, it often turns out that the G.O.P. candidate there has discovered a previous commitment elsewhere, the political equivalent of suddenly needing to have your tires rotated. Yes, it's true that Florida Congressman Clay Shaw has been running radio ads to boast of his record working closely with a President, but the one he's talking about is Bill Clinton.
THE IRAQ VERDICT
THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL IS NOT THE ONLY place where Bush is watching his friends scatter. Only 38% percent of Americans say they still believe his invasion of Iraq was a good idea, and 61% percent say they don't think he has a clear plan for handling the war. But Bush has lived by the political philosophy that when the crowd is against you, you just strut more boldly across the stage. That's why he held a news conference a few days ago to hug his war policy even tighter. It is there that he argued that staying the course means "constantly changing tactics" and that benchmarks (good) aren't the same as timetables (bad). But it was as if no one was listening. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared that he wouldn't abide by either one if it was imposed by Washington, and that morning's headlines had Bush's top general in Iraq, George W. Casey, breaking ranks to suggest he was thinking about asking for more troops. That was just about the last thing any Republican wanted to hear with less than two weeks to go before an election. Within 24 hours, therefore, Casey was back on message with a statement in which his office said he had given the "wrong impression." Al-Maliki and Bush took a few more days to get back in synch, by issuing a declaration that they had agreed to speed up training for Iraqi security forces.