President Bush is banking on the Democrats doing it again. It’s 2004 redux with Democratic self-destruction over Iraq – or so the White House hopes.
And it’s not a bad gamble.
There’s a huge gulf in Democratic views on the war – from Rep. Joe Biden’s partition plan to Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s 10-point fast exit and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s eye-on-‘08 spin.
Nancy Pelosi and crew may have wrested control of the House – with the Senate also in Democratic hands. But the White House controls the levers for prosecuting the war.
President Bush made that clear Wednesday with his pre-emptive strike in firing Donald Rumsfeld – eliminating the clearest national security issue around which all Dems could unite. Pelosi will have to look elsewhere for her first rallying cry on national security – possibly a full-court press on the dangers of war with Iran, or the need for energy security.
Iraq may have been the central issue on voters’ minds Tuesday.
But Americans cast a vote of “no confidence” in Republicans – not a vote of “confidence” in Democratic plans.
Because the Democrats still have no plan.
In fact, Pelosi made diversity on Iraq her party’s default position a year ago, correctly calculating it would be electoral murder for the party to call for any kind of withdrawal. Instead, she put Marine combat veteran Rep. John Murtha on front street with his “over the horizon” withdrawal plan for U.S. troops – and it didn’t fly.
And it won’t fly without a party behind it.
To her credit, Pelosi wants to be strategic about where and how she challenges the Bush administration.
There will be no divisive impeachment hearings, no confrontational votes barring the money for the war. With the revolution of ‘06 under their belts, Democrats want to position themselves for ‘08.
Yet that is likely to mean continuing the policy of “no policy” on Iraq. If so, Bush wins his gamble.
Dems should be doing all they can to press the president and his new defense secretary to rescue this nation from its damaging drift in Iraq, rather than promoting that drift.
Having no set plans that smack of “cut and run” may help Democrats to duck the charge that they’re “soft on defense.” Yet it leaves them open to the more serious charge that they’re incapable of running a complex war.
Further, the absence of a consensus on Iraq in ‘07 sets the stage for potentially lethal political infighting among leading Democratic contenders for the presidency in ‘08.
Worse, such inertia could easily collapse into a Vietnam-like pell-mell withdrawal from Iraq, only with far worse strategic consequences, including the destruction of Iraq, the rise of a Greater Iran and loss of U.S. access to Persian Gulf oil.
Pelosi needs a Democratic consensus if she wants to avoid these traps.
Fortunately for her, she should soon have cover for that effort.
The first will come from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group panel led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton. It’s due to offer its recommendations soon; they should include some sort of phased or partial withdrawal proposal around which Democrats need to unite.
Second is vigorous exercise of congressional oversight and investigative powers that were allowed to atrophy under the Republicans. In this regard, having a potential bomb-thrower like Kucinich in charge of a critical national security subcommittee could be a potential boon.
Third is the way that any reasonable Democratic proposals on Iraq should encourage moderate Republicans to come out of the closet and finally confront the Bush administration on its panoply of strategic and tactical errors. Such a bipartisan effort at finding a solution to Iraq offers the greatest chance of reassuring America’s troops on the ground, its allies and worried Iraqis that – whatever its future plans and strategic requirements in Iraq – America will not abandon its larger security responsibilities in the region.