Should Bush Have ‘Stayed the Course’ Past the Elections?
Dan Drezner believes that the administration’s abandonment of the “stay the course” mantra, while good from a public policy standpoint, may be quite harmful politically:
For the past five years, Democrats have been vulnerable on national security issues. Bush and the Republicans projected a clear image of taking the war to the enemy, and never yielding in their drive to defeat radical Islamists. The Democrats, in contrast, projected either an antiwar position or a “yes, but” position. The former looked out of step with the American people, the latter looked like Republican lite. No matter how you sliced it, the Republicans held the upper hand.
The recent rhetorical shift on Iraq, however, has flipped this phenomenon on its head. If Bush acknowledges that “stay the course” is no longer a satisfying status quo, he’s acknowledging that the Republican position for the past few years has not worked out too well. If that’s the case, then Republicans are forced to offer alternatives with benchmarks or timetables or whatever. The administration has had these plans before, but politically, it looks like the GOP is gravitating towards the Democratic position rather than vice versa.
If this is what the political optics look like, then the Republicans will find themselves in the awkward position of being labeled as “Democrat lite” in their positions on Iraq. And in elections, lite never tastes as good as the real thing.
I’ve argued previously that “stay the course” was a poor slogan, because it fueled the opposition talking point that the Bush team was too stubborn to adjust its Iraq strategy based on ever-shifting realities on the ground. Still, Dan may be right on the “optics.” It does seem that dropping the slogan has been perceived as some sort of admission that the whole policy has been a disaster and that there’s going to be a major shift after the election.
UPDATE: Commenter Cernig points to an interesting op-ed by Berkeley linguistics prof George Lakoff.
In the context of a metaphorical war against evil, “stay the course” evoked all these emotion-laden metaphors. The phrase enabled the president to act the way he’d been acting — and to demonstrate that it was his strong character that enabled him to stay on the moral path.
To not stay the course evokes the same metaphors, but says you are not steadfast, not morally strong. In addition, it means not getting to your destination — that is, not achieving your original purpose. In other words, you are lacking in character and strength; you are unable to “complete the mission” and “achieve the goal.”
“Stay the course” was for years a trap for those who disagreed with the president’s policies in Iraq. To disagree was weak and immoral. It meant abandoning the fight against evil. But now the president himself is caught in that trap. To keep staying the course, given obvious reality, is to get deeper into disaster in Iraq, while not staying the course is to abandon one’s moral authority as a conservative. Either way, the president loses.
There’s something to this. Emotion beats logic every time, frankly, for good or ill. Bush and Rove has used that to good effect in the past and it may now work against them.