The bitterly fought Congressional election was merely the prelude to the real showdown in Washington: the battle over the Iraq War. Now that the campaign is over, and Democrats have at least won the House, George W. Bush will face increasing criticism from newly empowered Democrats and Republicans no longer self-censored by party loyalty. And part of the at-home fight over Iraq could play out like a soap opera.
For months, pressure for change has been building on the White House. But the elections froze much of the debate. Congressional Republicans by and large stuck with Bush. Democrats, sensing the war was winning the elections for them, didn’t feel compelled to compose and promote a detailed alternative. This status quo is no longer operative, as demonstrated by the quick departure of Donald Rumsfeld. Come January Democrats will have the power to investigate Administration policies. They’ll be able hold hearings on previous mistakes and current White House decisions. But they’ll be expected to do more than blame Bush; they’ll have to present an alternative, despite being divided on what to do.
As Democrats struggle on this front, the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former Representative Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, will be crafting a report assessing the situation in Iraq and proposing policy shifts. Weeks ago, Baker told me there are “no easy solutions,” that the Administration had to “admit big mistakes were made” and that his commission would produce specific recommendations or a set of unambiguous alternatives. One option reportedly under consideration is a phased withdrawal of US troops. Another calls for stabilizing Baghdad while the US Embassy works for an accommodation with the insurgents.
Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already dismissed the Baker report, perhaps prematurely because it could provide out-of-Iraq Democrats a degree of cover. The Baker-Hamilton report–should it advocate a version of disengagement–might well draw stark lines in the postelection debate. Days before the election, Dick Cheney vowed that the Administration would proceed “full speed ahead.” But Baker has signaled that he believes a new strategic path is required. The question is, How kindly will Bush and Cheney take such advice?
Baker is the consigliere of the Bush the First clan. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he and Brent Scowcroft, the elder Bush’s National Security Adviser, publicly cautioned against the war. Their remarks were interpreted as reflecting Bush Senior’s concerns. Bush Junior eschewed the advice, and did what his father had not done: invade and occupy Iraq. Now here comes Baker to pull W.’s bacon out of the fire. But does Bush want to be rescued by a surrogate for his daddy? He might well reject Baker’s ideas–which would be an act of family rebellion of global consequence. (But by replacing Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, who was CIA director for Bush Senior and who now serves on the Baker-Hamilton commission, Bush indicated he may not be beyond reach.)
Meanwhile, Republicans will have to choose sides in any family feud. “Before the election, we were hearing from Republican senators that after the campaign they wanted to figure out a bipartisan change of course,” says a Senate Democratic staffer. These GOPers could rally around the Baker recommendations (with or without Democrats). Other Republicans could find it hard to cut and run from the President. And 2008 considerations will color calculations on both sides of the aisle.
The election is over; the war is not. With their new power, the Democrats will assume a greater responsibility to address the issue of what to do in Iraq. With diminished power, troubled Republicans will be more inclined to press the leader of their party. With the public, Congress and perhaps his father’s crowd arrayed against him, Bush will be in one tight corner.