For those of us who supported the war but who also fiercely oppose Bush's domestic priorities - Tony Blair Democrats, as we're increasingly known - the behavior of our more wigged-out Democratic brethren has been a little scary. Here's how reality looks to us:
For starters, those 16 words (citing British suspicions on Iraqi activity) for which Bush staffers keep apologizing were literally true. Tony Blair said so again himself the other day. It's heartening to see the White House so off balance that it feels obliged to apologize for factually accurate statements, but that doesn't seem a trend on which Democrats can stake much long-term hope.
Next, no matter how sorry George Tenet and Stephen Hadley are, the fact remains: We did not go to war with Iraq because the Brits thought Saddam had recently tried to get uranium from Niger.
We went because of Saddam's pattern of behavior since 1991. We fought because every civilized nation and American president knew Saddam had chemical and biological weapons and was pursuing nuclear weapons. We fought because each time we thought we knew what Saddam had been up to on nuclear weaponry, defectors later told us he was further along than we'd suspected. We fought because after 9/11 these dynamics seemed too risky not to act on at some point, especially when Saddam had given up $180 billion in oil revenue via sanctions rather than come clean - hardly the behavior of a madman with nothing to hide.
Now remember: You're hearing this from someone who doesn't want George Bush to be elected in 2004 (note I didn't say "reelected," which tells you all you need to know about my general worldview).
There's no shame to admitting that "Niger-gate" is mostly about politics. The ease with which the press can be manipulated to pursue "what did he know when?" storylines and potential "cover-ups" means that attacks like today's are almost irresistible.
Republicans should know. The GOP perfected the art of throwing everything you can until something sticks. The very fact that I can say the word "Travelgate" and you probably know what I mean shows how the most trivial event (the dismissal of a few White House travel staff) can be pumped up through a stenographic media into a "scandal."
No, it's far too late for Republicans to cry foul.
Still, the real question for those who prefer their Bush presidencies in one-term doses is not whether today's attacks are fair, but whether they are smart.
My instinct is no. At some point - three months or six months or 12 months from now - indisputable proof of Saddam's weapons will emerge. When that happens, what will shrill, wrongheaded liberals who weirdly sound as if they're staking everything on Saddam Hussein's honesty seem to be but ... a bunch of shrill, wrongheaded liberals!
The boomerang will hit hard - and it will hit the whole Democratic Party.
The more sophisticated case for attacks on Bush's "intelligence hype" is that even if dubious, they will damage his credibility - raising doubts that will stick usefully for 2004. Republicans used this technique with ludicrous but tenacious assaults on Al Gore's "honesty" in 2000, and it hurt.
My own judgment, however, is that the boomerang risk when Saddam's weapons are eventually found is far, far greater than any credibility hit Bush will take. My point to the left: Why risk this boomerang when there are better, truer ways to bash Bush?
There's Bush's failure to get international support for postwar Iraq and his North Korean neglect, which could have horrifying consequences. At home, Bush's reckless tax cuts for the rich, record budget deficits, and phony compassion offer much stronger examples of deceit and duplicity than did the case for action against Iraq.
There's still time for Democrats to stop flailing and get strategic before 2004 heats up. But not too much time.
E-mail syndicated columnist Matt Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.