WASHINGTON — To understand the stakes this Election Day, turn the page back to a piece of journalism published just before the last.

On Oct. 17, 2004, author Ron Suskind took readers of The New York Times Magazine on a mind-bending trip to the surreal — the inner sanctum of the Bush White House. Suskind interviewed a senior presidential aide who scoffed at the “reality-based community” — people whose decisions are guided by facts and judicious analysis — and declared their time to be over.

“That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” the aide told Suskind. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality … we’ll act again, creating other new realities. … We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

We are left, now, to study the new reality our president has created.

Iraq is a killing field where the American death toll climbs and the military is ever more strained, rotating troops back into battle after they’ve already served their time in the line of fire. Iraqi civilians die in droves. How many? There is no official count. The United Nations estimated in July that civilian deaths were averaging more than 100 a day — a figure surpassed with the rampages that marked the weeks of Ramadan. The response of the Iraqi government to the focus on civilian casualties was to shut down the flow of information from the Health Ministry, one of the few reliable sources about deaths — other than the overflowing morgues — for journalists and international observers.

When Iraqis are not shuttering their stores, cowering in their homes or trekking to the morgue to recover a body, they are fleeing, or preparing to. A military intelligence briefing obtained by The New York Times reports that “urban areas are experiencing ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaigns to consolidate control,” and that violence is at “an all-time high, spreading geographically.” A preschooler could read the briefing’s color-coded graph, which depicts the current state of affairs. The needle is pushing deep into the red zone marked “chaos.”

The Saddam Hussein guilty verdict is likely to do little to alter this course. It is more likely to reinforce the sectarian hatreds that rage out of control.

This is what the reality-based community sees. Yet this is what the president sees: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is doing a “fantastic job” and will stay on until the end of his term in January 2009, Bush says.

The Republican Congress, particularly the unfailingly partisan House, has been a willing and often politically gleeful passenger on this dark carnival ride. Lawmakers have raised virtually no questions and have refused to pay for war operations with spending cuts or — heaven forbid — taxes. Instead, billions have been added to the national debt. Private contractors fail to deliver on the reconstruction projects American taxpayers have bought, but they get paid anyway. Billions in reconstruction money is unaccounted for. Not misspent, but lost. The congressional response to tough audits from the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction was to slip language into a big military bill that would shutter the watchdog’s office next year.

The Republican charge is that the Democrats have “no plan” for Iraq. Or worse. “The Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses,” Bush claims.

The slander is predictable coming from this president, but Bush deserves special shame for it. In New York, where the remains of those who perished at the World Trade Center still are being unearthed, voters are poised to elect Democrats up and down the ticket — with Eliot Spitzer’s ascension to governor and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s reelection to the Senate likely to be achieved with landslide margins. According to the president’s inflammatory insult, New York voters invite the terrorists to strike them again.

This is the pattern and practice of the Bush administration. It has been aided and abetted by the Republican Congress.

Iraq is the overriding issue in Tuesday’s elections. But no one should anticipate facile answers or a swift change of course even if the Democrats win control of one or both legislative chambers. For Iraq is a blunder of historic proportion and the global consequences may well reverberate for a generation.

What Democrats can, and will, do if they win back a measure of power is to check the recklessness that has brought us to this precipice. We can expect them to govern, at long last, on behalf of the reality-based community.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.


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