Friday, October 01, 2004

If you only read one review of last night's presidential debate (and you're reading a blog right now, so the chances of just one are pretty low to start with), make sure to read William Saletan on Slate today. While folks like Brad DeLong joyously "fact check" Bush -- amounting to little more than "hurrah for our side" antics -- Saletan passes by such trivialities and gets immediately to the heart of the matter.

We don't want to believe that we were wrong, that we've committed $200 billion and sacrificed more than 1,000 American lives in error. We can't imagine asking thousands more to die for a mistake. . . .

Ignore the bad news, [Bush] says. . . . If these reports are true, as Kerry suggests, then it was all a mistake. How can we ask our troops to die for a mistake? We can't. Therefore, these reports must be rejected. They must be judged not by evidence, but by their offensiveness to the assumptions we embraced when we went to war.

. . . Bush judges the war's worth: not by costs and benefits, but by character. It shows our nobility. It shows we did our duty. He used the word "duty" seven times tonight. Kerry never used that word, except to refer to "active duty" troops. Eleven times, Bush called the mess in Iraq "hard work." To recognize error would be to abandon that work and shirk our duty. Again and again, he framed the acceptance of bad news as moral failure.
Until it really hits the fan, most Americans need to believe that US troops in Iraq are heroic and noble and doing good and that everything will come out right in the end. And Saletan is exactly right that Kerry cannot come out and say that Iraq not only was but is a mistake because by that he would be denying the vast majority of the American people a dream they demand to hold.

This, of course, is not unusual, either, for us or for any country. Wars aren't defined as "mistakes" until defeat is imminent -- and sometimes not even then. And that is what Bush really has going for him: the need to believe, combined with that classic American refusal to admit failure.

Kerry is right, but he has to tread lightly and carefully on this one. The facts cannot speak for themselves, as DeLong and many liberals think they can. The facts must be combined with a style which does not yet deny Americans their belief in this insane crusade.


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