OK -- it was an easy speech to criticize. But the Iraq section of the speech was premised on the notion that Democrats have no reply when Bush says, Hey, I got rid of Saddam, and what was your plan? Not getting rid of Saddam? -- and that's still a compelling message for a lot of voters.
We talk about Bush's "ever-shifting" justifications for the Iraq war, but for him (and for roughly half of America, alas), that ever-expanding list of reasons for war is a strength: Hey, the Iraqi people now have FREEDOM!, and Saddam had weapons programs, and ... and ... and hey, Qaddafi just disarmed! That's another good thing!
Everyone in America knows the reason-turned-multiple-reasons for the Iraq war. The counterargument just isn't as familiar to American voters. Oh, sure -- people say, "Well, what about doing something for this country?" But an awful lot of Americans still think we did a Good Thing in Iraq. We gave them Freedom.
Did we? Despite the best efforts of the troops on the ground, it looks as if we gave them chaos and anarchy, thanks to the Bush administration's "Duh, what do we do now?" approach to the "postwar" period.
Bush says, without fear of contradiction, "The world is a safer place." But Iraq is dangerously unstable. How does that make the world a safer place? And we have ten times as many troops in Iraq as we have hunting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. We captured Saddam, yet air travel got more dangerous -- and even in Iraq violence and unrest didn't abate.
And where was the threat to the U.S. in Iraq? Where were the weapons? We had Saddam in a box. Republicans talk as if we did nothing unpleasant to Saddam between the end of the '91 war and March of 2003 -- as if the sanctions and the bombing runs in the no-fly zones were a slap on the wrist. These measures were rarely mentioned by the media, so Republicans can argue that Clinton wrung his hands while Bush did something. The fact is that we had an unpleasant but measured and effective response to Saddam, then, using 9/11 as a pretext, Bush launched a war that killed five hundred Americans (and counting) to contain a threat that was already contained -- and that had nothing to do with 9/11.
I'm belaboring the obvious -- but it's not obvious to a hell of a lot of voters. This counterargument just isn't familiar out in the heartland. If that continues to be the case, the winner in November, appalling as we may find it, will be Bush, the war hero.