Reality: The conservatives do a good job of trying to balance between saying that Iraq is going well and just saying that it could be worse. But no one is contending that Iraq has been a smashing success, and by not saying so, I think it's the intellectually honest position to take. There are still lots of deaths, lots of people without power and water, no economy to speak of, less than 10% of the planned reconstruction for 2004 has taken place, Al-Sadr, Fallujah, Najaf, Zarqawi, etc. Many Americans, whether they feel the war was justified or not, are squirming about the speed of progress and whether it will all be worth it when it's all said and done. I don't presume to know the answer, but the "undecided" voters are looking at where we are over a year later and are wondering if Iraq a) is just not going well right now, b) is a potential disaster, or c) was a failure from the very beginning. Precisely because no one knows the answer to that yet, they face the prospect of voting for Bush with a fair amount of trepidation.
Perception: Bush has traditionally received high marks for being a strong leader and tough on terror. The undecided voter understands that America is not out of the woods yet with respect to terror, and that there is still work that desperately needs to be done. Bush was the face of our anger and resolve to the world after 9-11, and he led us through the emotions and angst of that time. He led us through the war in Afghanistan, where America stood up, fought back, and taught those who would do us harm that there would be a stiff price to pay for doing so. It was because of this period in our history that most people look on Bush as being strong and decisive. He has become the nations "security blanket" that we, for whatever reason, feel better just knowing that it's nearby, that it is there to protect us if we need it. Without even considering any facts, and with all things being equal, people just feel safer with Bush.
So the undecided voter sees the reality of failure in Iraq with no way of knowing how it will end, and yet they have a perception that Bush will keep them safer than any other candidate. So which is more important they wonder. How to make a decision? Thankfully for them, I am here to bring clarity to their restless minds.
The reality of the issues we are facing in Iraq speak for themselves. Sure, we are building schools and hospitals, and sure we are working on the power and water, and elections will be held at some point, but none of that matters unless Iraq can find peace and a government that can lead their people. By saying that Iraq has become a crisis is not the same thing as saying that Iraq is a failure or a mistake, but it is saying that unless we solve the very real problems it will certainly become a failure. Further, there is a point at which the level of cost in terms of life and money will make the cost/benefit equation tip in the wrong direction. I don't think we (both as individuals and as a country) know if we are going to cross that point or not. And none of us know what the long-term impact will be in either event. But the reality is that "undecided" voters have to think in these terms. It isn't going as expected, things are bad, and I'm questioning the worth and likely outcome of the entire affair.
But let's look at the perception that Bush is able to keep us safer than his opponent. Listening to Sean Hannity, Michael Graham, Bill Krystal, Clifford May, Dick Cheney, etc. I hear that the simple fact that we haven't been attacked again is proof that Bush's policies have worked. Is that a fair assessment? Not really when you consider that Al Qaeda waited many years before attacking the World Trade Centers again. Additionally, we know it took over a decade to plan 9-11 and to carry it out, so why would we expect them to be able to hit us with another sensational attack within three years? And do you really think that if we get hit again that the Republicans will then say, "I guess Bush's policies failed", or do you think they'll say "we have to be right every time, the terrorists only have to get lucky once,"? I think we both know.
Ok, so what about security? Ports continue to let in more uninspected cargo than inspected cargo. When it came up in the debates that we only inspect 10% of all cargo, Bush's response was that we inspect all cargo classified as "high risk" and that we had made process changes and agreements with other countries to ensure that ships and their cargo were secured before leaving port to America. For this to make you feel safe however, you have to trust that countries like Canada, Mexico, and France are doing their part - the same countries that allowed the first batch of terrorists into the U.S. And to be frank, I don't have a high level of comfort with us being able to somehow reliably divine which cargo containers are high risk, which ones are not, and to stay one step ahead of terrorists who will be trying to sneak bombs over here on the most innocuous cargo container full of baby food, bibles, and toilet paper. If you think I'm going over the edge here and that our government can certainly prevent any of this material from crossing our border, go jump on the Internet and find out how much marijuana and cocaine are grown/harvested within our borders compared to how much we consume each year.
Our borders are not secure, and we have had senior officials within the Border Patrol threaten to resign because they didn't feel they had the tools they needed to keep the borders closed. What about our airports? Surely they have improved. The Department of Homeland Security revealed on September 22nd that during their latest study they were able to sneak bombs and guns past screeners in 15 out of 15 airports. Representative John Mica, R-Fla, the chairman of the house aviation subcommittee, said the results on weapons were "bad enough", but the results on explosives were "absolutely horrendous." The bottom line is that you are never going to find plastic explosives with a metal detector, no matter how hard you try. So why do they only occasionally check passengers using trace detection equipment? Would you feel safe if they only made 1 out of every 20 people walk through a metal detector? Three years and the means that was used to kill 3,000 Americans is still wide open.
The top two leaders of the group that attacked us are still on the loose, but we are killing their followers, shutting down their bank accounts, and forcing them to hide in caves. We must be safe, right? And yet, in 2003 Donald Rumsfeld said in an internal memo (that was of course leaked to the press) that we lacked the proper metrics to know if we were making any progress on the war on terror. He pointed out that while we freeze assets, we don't know what percent of the total that is, nor do we know if the donations the terrorists are receiving are increasing faster than we can track them down and freeze them. He also pointed out that while we were killing a lot of potential and active terrorists, we have no idea how many are being created due to the unpopular nature of some of our activities, and how quickly new terrorists are being turned out by the mosques. And, we still don't know. If the Bush administration did know, we would hear those facts every day, especially during election season. The bottom line is we don't know if we are winning the war on terrorism. We are winning battles, but we have no concept of the impact on the greater war. What we do know, is that terrorist attacks have gone up since 9/11/2001 (thanks the report on terrorism that came out early in 2004) and that there are still plenty of individuals in the world that would love to kill us all.
So this brings me back to the original question - Why is Bush perceived as being more capable of making us safe? Is it because he will attack those who attack us? No, because that is reactive and not what any of us are looking for. Is it because he will go after those that are the largest threat to us? Well, out of the three members of the axis of evil, one has nukes, one is within a year of having them, and one was at least 5 years away from being able to have them, if they ever decided to even try. Guess which of the three Bush attacked.
In the final analysis, any conservative can (and likely will) attempt to argue specific points about what I've said and I'll be more than happy to discuss. However, what I am getting at for those who are "undecided" is that the perception that Bush will make us safer is based more on emotional baggage than it is on anything practical that the Bush administration has done in the past 3 years. If you want to analyze all of the evidence and decide if Bush will make you safe, I'm all for it. However this knee jerk, gut-feeling that Bush will make us safe is not only unfounded, but it is in and of itself, dangerous. He has created a foreign policy that attempts to allow us to invade any country we think is a threat without the agreement of the world, but which also forces us to rely on the rest of the world to work with us to ensure our safety (monitoring ports, pressure Iran and North Korea, sharing intelligence, etc.). It's one thing to slap your neighbor, it's another thing to slap them and then say that you expect them to help protect your property when the wolves come. Answer this question - If we were to experience another 9/11 style attack tomorrow, do you think we'd have the same level of support around the world when we wanted to invade the "responsible" country as we did in Afghanistan? To not recognize that in order to track down weapons of mass destruction and rogue terrorists, that we need the full and undivided cooperation of every foreign country in the world, is to ignore that which is inextricably tied to our security and survival as a free nation.
So to the "undecided" voter, I ask that you re-evaluate your perceptions of President Bush. Look at the example of Iraq, and you will see that Bush is not an effective leader, and then look at our national security, and you will see that he is also not endowed by God with some uncanny ability to make us safe. Perception often has more to do with why people chose their candidates than reality does, but having a good understanding of reality will prepare you to make a better choice.