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The GOP's Iraq Problem | The Nation

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The GOP's Iraq Problem

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All spring and summer, the Republicans ducked the question of what to do about Iraq. Their mantra was: Wait for General Petraeus. Among Washington insiders, it was no secret why: The hugely unpopular war was largely responsible for the party's massive defeat in November 2006, and as party officials scanned confidential internal polls, things weren't looking any better for 2008. Rather than answer questions about the need to change course in Iraq, the GOP hoped and prayed that the general--dubbed by some "Petraeus ex machina"--would fly in from Baghdad with good news to report, so Republicans could relax.

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Robert Dreyfuss
Bob Dreyfuss
Robert Dreyfuss, a Nation contributing editor, is an investigative journalist specializing in politics and national...

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Though the new Republican mantra is that the surge is working and that Petraeus needs more time, there is little evidence the American public was swayed by the general's report that the war in Iraq is turning around. Four and a half years into the grinding conflict, public opinion has decisively shifted against the war, and it isn't going back, according to GOP pollsters and consultants. "The American people have turned the page on Iraq," says Kellyanne Conway of The Polling Company, a GOP firm.

George W. Bush's damn-the-torpedoes determination to stay the course in Iraq has thus created an excruciating dilemma for the GOP. By sticking with the White House, Republicans in Congress can block the Democrats' efforts to end the war, either by filibuster or by upholding an almost certain veto of any bill challenging the war. But any such victory will be Pyrrhic, costing them dearly in next year's election. Between now and then, they'll remain trapped between a White House that isn't ready to give an inch and a Democratic caucus in the House and Senate that can force them to cast vote after embarrassing vote in defense of Bush's war over the next thirteen months, in full public view.

Although Democrats have the stronger hand, Iraq poses a significant challenge for them, too. Having largely adopted an antiwar stand, the Democrats can look forward to 2008 secure in the knowledge that public opinion is overwhelmingly on their side. Still, since they don't have the votes to force a shift in the war, they may find themselves caught between their disappointed, left-leaning antiwar base and a GOP attack machine describing them as "Defeatocrats." Even with public support, it will require some real political skill for the Democrats to highlight the White House's sorry record in Iraq--from the rigged intelligence that justified the war to the mismanagement of the occupation to its enormous cost in lives and treasure--while insuring that the Republicans pay the price.

On the Hill, Republicans are mightily aware that pollsters, pundits and politicians predict sweeping Democratic gains in 2008 if Iraq is still an issue. With twenty-two GOP-held Senate seats up for grabs next year--many from states that are hotbeds of antiwar sentiment such as Oregon, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Maine and New Mexico--the Democrats have an outside shot at winning a filibuster-proof, sixty-vote majority in the Senate. In the House, Democrats could pick up as many as thirty additional seats. Plus, of course, the White House.

According to Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the GOP is weak everywhere, and Iraq is the main driver. An August 2007 survey of the seventy most competitive Congressional districts Greenberg's firm carried out for the Democracy Corps showed that even in Republican-held districts, 61 percent of voters "want their member of Congress to vote to change President Bush's direction on Iraq and start requiring a reduction of troops." Perhaps the most stunning result of her polling: In the thirty-five most competitive districts now held by a Republican member of Congress, voters favor the Democratic candidate by 49 to 44 percent. "The war hurts Republicans among swing voters, among seniors and older voters, especially older women, in urban/suburban districts, and in rural areas," says Greenberg. Just in urban/suburban districts, where antiwar sentiment is strong, Democrats could pick up eight or nine seats, she says. In Republican-held urban/suburban districts--typified by those held by Representatives Christopher Shays of suburban Connecticut and Mark Kirk of Chicago--fully two-thirds of voters support legislation that would set a deadline or timetable for withdrawal.

Even in rural areas, where the Republican base is traditionally rock solid, the war in Iraq has soured GOP voters on the party. "Given the current national climate, Republicans must win rural areas to see success in 2008, while Democrats in turn have an historic opportunity to strike deep into the Republican base," says a June report by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. And it won't matter how the White House tries to spin the news from Iraq if the news continues to be bad. "Spin is so secondary to substance," says GOP pollster William Greener. "Reality dominates what people are going to think or not think. It won't make any difference what the spin is, if the substance is bad."

Desperate for help from the White House, GOP Congressional delegations visited Bush to express their concern. A group of eleven endangered moderate GOP House members, including Shays, trekked down Pennsylvania Avenue in early May to see if Bush would budge. So did a more select group of senior senators. All were rebuffed. "When the party bulls went to the White House, they said, 'We know for a fact that in eighteen months your policy will be reversed. Are you telling us that for the sake of the next eighteen months, you're willing to destroy the party?'" says Steve Simon, a former national security aide to Bill Clinton. "And the President's answer was, 'Thanks for your interest.'"

"It's clear by now that President Bush is going to let his allies on the Hill twist in the wind," says Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has informally advised General Petraeus. "The Administration's vote-counting tells them that they're not going to lose enough Republicans to allow Congress to override a veto."

Inside the White House, the worry about 2008 seems not to have penetrated Bush's inner circle. The political people-- from former White House politics czar Karl Rove, who quit in August, on down--don't have much input into the President's national security decisions. "I've talked to guys who are high-ranking inside the White House, but they're constantly being told, This isn't your department," says Grover Norquist, the right-wing activist who keeps close tabs on Republican politics. "Part of the problem is, they're not allowed to have an opinion on this. Only the experts are allowed to have opinions."

Doug Bandow, a libertarian-conservative foreign policy expert and former aide to President Reagan, says that neither Bush nor Cheney will be moved by politics when it comes to Iraq. "We see a stubbornness in the President that is virtually unique. What does he care about the party's future? He parachuted into politics on his father's coattails. He's never been much of a party guy, and I think he could care less," says Bandow. "Cheney is more of a Republican, and he might be expected to be more concerned about politics and the party's future. But he's at the end of his career, and he just might be ready to bring the whole house down on top of them if that's what it takes." Adds Larry Wilkerson, who was a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, "Cheney's always been an ultra-nationalist cowboy from Wyoming, and he's the kind of guy who would indeed sacrifice the party for what he sees as America's best interests."

Signs of the Republican Party's distress over Iraq began to emerge even before the 2006 election. Early that year a phalanx of moderate and mainstream Republicans, led by Representative Frank Wolf and quietly backed by Senator John Warner, then chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, put together the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton. The task force assembled a bipartisan plan to begin winding down the war, and many in the GOP hoped that Bush would embrace it. But Bush, backed by Cheney and a team of ideologues from the American Enterprise Institute, announced the surge, escalating the war instead.

Checkmated, some Republicans on Capitol Hill gradually began to express their doubts publicly. One by one, with one eye on the war and the other on the 2008 elections, prominent Republican senators began to break with the President--first Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, then Gordon Smith of Oregon and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and finally George Voinovich of Ohio, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Dick Lugar of Indiana. Vulnerable senators up for re-election in '08, such as Norm Coleman of Minnesota and John Sununu of New Hampshire, began to express concern. And a handful of key GOP senators signed on to a bipartisan bill to enact into law the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Robert Bennett of Utah and, surprisingly, minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Feeling heat from his constituents, and under pressure from an organized antiwar effort led by Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, McConnell began singing loudly in the waiting-for-Petraeus chorus, suggesting--wrongly, it turns out--that perhaps the Bush Administration would change course come September. "I anticipate that we will probably be going in a different direction in some way in Iraq, and it will be interesting to see what the Administration chooses to do," said McConnell in June.

Another Republican senator who sounded off was North Carolina's Elizabeth Dole, also up for re-election in 2008. With little fanfare, she issued a statement raising concern over the Administration's July interim report on the surge, in which the White House admitted that almost none of the benchmarks had been met thus far. "Our commitment in Iraq is not indefinite, nor should the Iraqi government perceive it to be," said Dole. "It is my firm hope and belief that we can start bringing our troops home in 2008." During General Petraeus's appearance before the Armed Services Committee in September, Dole pointedly declared that she would now support "what some have called action-forcing measures."

But during the spring and summer, when forced to vote, only a tiny handful of Republicans turned their unhappiness with the Administration's Iraq policy into votes to end the war. Just four GOP senators--Hagel, Smith, Snowe and Collins--voted in favor of a bill to set a timetable for withdrawal, along with only four GOP House members. With Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker having testified, the Democrats intend to call the Republicans' bluff. "All these people saying September is the time, they're going to have to belly up to the bar and decide how to vote," said majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

On both sides of the aisle there is pessimism that enough Republicans will break with the White House to make a difference. The mainstream Democratic legislative vehicles for ending the war are those proposed by Carl Levin and Jack Reed in the Senate and David Obey and Jim McGovern in the House. These measures call for the withdrawal of US forces to begin within 120 days of passage, to be completed by April 30, 2008, with a residual American force to combat Al Qaeda, train Iraqi forces and protect US personnel. "I don't think there's a chance of getting another eight to ten Republicans on Levin-Reed," says a top Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill. (Last time around, in mid-July, with four Republican votes, the Democrats mustered a total of fifty-two votes for the bill. They need sixty to overcome a filibuster and sixty-seven to override a veto.)

Conservative Republicans unhappy with Bush's Iraq policy, from libertarians to mainstream fiscal conservatives to right-wing activists like Norquist, aren't optimistic that House and Senate Republicans will break with Bush's war policy. "In the meetings I've attended, they're circling the wagons," says Mike Ostrolenk, founder of a new conservative defense think tank, the American Conservative Defense Alliance, established in part to create an alternative to the neoconservatives on foreign policy. "They get very defensive on the question of supporting the President's policy, and they discount as oddballs the Republicans who've broken with that policy."

Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway puts it this way: "There is this feeling that to abandon the White House is to shack up with the Democrats, that there is no 'third way.' And so leaving Bush is like joining up with the enemy."

In the wake of Petraeus's testimony, Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have declared their willingness to water down the Democratic antiwar bills, or perhaps to support more modest legislation, in order to attract additional Republican support. But it's a risky strategy, since by doing so they're certain to infuriate hard-core antiwar Democrats on the Hill, with no guarantee that whatever emerges as a result can survive an almost certain presidential veto. In addition, the atmosphere on the Hill is so poisonous that compromise is exceedingly difficult. "The degree of partisanship is so high, the trust so low, that it's really hard for either side to move toward each other," says a staffer for a leading Democratic senator.

Meanwhile, the White House is doing everything it can to prevent even a modest compromise on the Hill. "The White House posture of complete resolve and grim determination is aimed at undermining deals on the Hill," says former aide Steve Simon. "Because there won't be any payoff. You're not going to get anything for it." A top staffer on the Democratic side agrees. In the end, he says, "a veto is a veto is a veto."

Lacking the courage and the political muscle to confront the White House directly, most Republicans are glumly resigned to fighting another election in which Iraq is the central concern. "In polls I've seen, including internal Republican polls, it is abundantly clear that Iraq is the issue," says Conway.

Many Republicans, desperate to proclaim a light at the end of the tunnel, will point to the end of the surge as a harbinger of further withdrawals to come. But, pollsters say, while the end of the surge may briefly boost Republican hopes and trigger a temporary uptick in the polls, it isn't likely to last long when measured against the toll of continuing US casualties, hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the occupation, and Iraq's chaotic ethnic and sectarian civil war. "If in the end, the [impact] of the Petraeus-Crocker report is, We're here indefinitely and we don't know how long it's going to take, that's very bad news for Republicans," says Tony Fabrizio, a leading GOP pollster.

Meanwhile, GOP worry continues to grow. "I'll tell you where senators and House members are seeing the impact of Iraq: in fundraising," says Conway. "The committees, including the NRCC [National Republican Campaign Committee], the NRSC [National Republican Senatorial Committee] and the RNC [Republican National Committee], are having a devil of a time raising funds." At last report, the Democrats had $20.4 million in cash for Senate races and Republicans just $5.8 million. Similar disparities prevail for House fundraising and among presidential candidates.

If, as expected, Congressional Republicans stay tethered to the White House, a real change could occur if and when one of the top-tier GOP presidential candidates makes a definitive break with Bush on Iraq, GOP pollsters say. "The 'Sister Souljah moment' for Republican presidential candidates will be on Iraq," predicts Conway. According to Fabrizio, at least one or two of the leading GOP contenders may read the post-Petraeus/Crocker tea leaves and break with the White House. "Don't discount the presidential side of the equation," says Fabrizio, who says he has heard that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney could be the first to go. "I wouldn't underestimate the impact on Capitol Hill if one of the major candidates breaks," he says. So far, however, all of the major Republican candidates remain vociferous supporters of the President's Iraq policy.

Meanwhile, the Democrats intend to keep the pressure on, even if they can't force Bush to bring the troops home. Beginning in mid-September and continuing into October, the House and Senate will have to deal with defense appropriation and defense authorization bills, along with a White House request for as much as $200 billion to fund the war and the continuing surge. If the Democrats are unable to use those bills to impose a timetable, their fallback strategy may be to vote only enough money for forty-five or sixty days. That would compel Republicans in Congress to defend Bush's war over and over again into 2008. Among other measures, Senator Jim Webb is backing a bill to impose longer home-leave and readiness requirements, making it harder to find US forces to send to Iraq. In July Webb's plan won fifty-six votes, seven of them Republican, and might get enough this time to overcome a GOP filibuster--only to face a presidential veto. "We'll try to keep 'em on a very short leash," says a top Democratic staffer in the House.

"It's clear that the President's strategy is to keep the war going until he leaves office and then blame the Democrats for losing the war," says a House staffer with close ties to the antiwar caucus. "We've got to frame the debate. Politically, we can't stop Bush as long as he's in the White House. But he has to be held accountable. We're not going to do anything that gives the Republicans any cover, and we'll do what we can to clarify the differences. The next step is a unified, strategic position on our part to make sure that the President gets the blame for the fiasco in Iraq."

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