- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Two political commentators I greatly respect recently said the 2004 presidential election will largely be determined by the situation in Iraq and the state of the economy around election time, so all the campaigning between now and then may be meaningless. I disagree.

I think the election results will turn as much on perceptions as reality, and political campaigns are all about creating perceptions. So the campaigning will be very relevant.

Don’t get me wrong, there is not always a major disconnect between perception and reality. The electorate often perceives things as they objectively exist. But there also are great opportunities for distortions that can affect election results.

The example is Bill Clinton’s repeated assertion that, under the first President Bush, we were experiencing “the worst economy in 50 years.” Of course, common sense and experience made that claim absurd on its face, given the years of malaise under Jimmy Carter, for example.

But we need not just rely on our common sense here. Later, objective data indicated that, during the very time Mr. Clinton was slandering the Bush economy, a recovery was beginning. Yet Mr. Clinton, aided by the fawning partisan media, was able to obscure reality and convince voters we were in economic freefall and ride “the economy, stupid” into the Oval Office.

Democrats also are aware of the power of perception in political labeling. A reputation for liberalism can be hazardous to one’s electoral health. Just look at how John Kerry ran from National Journal’s depiction of him as the most liberal senator of 2003 and tried to blur the objective reality of his liberalism.

Necessity being the mother of invention, Democrats have fine-tuned their skills at manipulating perception in their “campaigning” against the war in Iraq. To diminish our remarkable military achievements, they nitpicked about our troops getting ahead of supply lines, the looting of museums, the Iraqis not receiving us enthusiastically enough, and the like.

But the major weapon Democrats used to discredit Mr. Bush’s performance on Iraq, prior to their orgy over the weapons of mass destruction issue, was the misrepresentation we attacked Iraq “unilaterally.” Though we didn’t succeed in persuading every recalcitrant nation to join the coalition, we did have scores of nations participating, making the charge of “unilateralism” objectively untrue.

But Democrats used this phony allegation to taint the American public’s perception about our objectively multilateral coalition and our objectively impressive military victory. They also conveniently concealed the objective fact Mr. Bush tried hard to persuade the French, Germans, et al. to join us.

Concerning terrorist unrest since we changed the regime in Iraq, Democrats have worked overtime to create the perception our casualties have been the work of Iraqis disenchanted with Saddam’s ouster.

These are not disaffected Iraqi commoners longing for the return of Saddam but militant holdovers from his fallen regime, and local and international terrorists with a vested interest in undermining America and preventing democracy from gaining a foothold in a Muslim nation in the Middle East.

Democratic perception-weaving has continued unabated through the primary season with the latest example of counterterrorism official Richard Clarke’s new book designed to soil the Bush administration’s credibility in the War on Terror. Mr. Clarke reportedly claims President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were just looking for an excuse to invade Iraq following September 11, 2001, with or without evidence tying Saddam to the attacks.

This fits nicely into the hysterical fantasy that neoconservative warmongers planned to use Iraq as their first experiment in empire building under the Bush era and that Mr. Bush was their compliant puppet.

But it ignores the objective reality Mr. Bush ordered that we first strike the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and that he didn’t attack Iraq for another year and a half, and then only after Saddam was given multiple “last” chances to comply with U.N. resolutions.

The Democrats also will play the perception game with the economy. It won’t matter if we have 10 percent annualized growth in October and the misery index is below the radar screen. They’ll say the rich are enjoying a disproportionate share of the wealth, or we’re excessively “outsourcing” jobs.

Those who think the “realities” are guaranteed to determine the presidential election results underestimate the ingenuity of political spinmeisters. Republicans are certainly not inexperienced in the art of political spin, but they’re mere neophytes compared to Democrats. Between now and November, the Bush campaign team will be put to the test.

David Limbaugh is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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