Americans aren't known for unlimited patience. That's one reason why President Bush is having such trouble rallying the country behind the Iraq war, which has dragged on for 41/2 years with no end in sight. Bush's prime-time address last week promised more of the same. He said the war is going well enough to allow the withdrawal of 5,700 troops by Christmas and thousands more by July, but he indicated that he will leave 130,000 there indefinitely. That's the same number as a year ago, before he sent in reinforcements. More irksome to the antiwar critics, Bush argued for a strategic commitment to Iraq "that extends beyond my presidency" and suggested that troops should remain there for years. Not the most optimistic message.
Those who have talked to Bush in private recently say he is in no mood to compromise. He believes so strongly that the United States must win the war—to prevent chaos in the overall Middle East and deny terrorists a new sanctuary—that he won't back off. He believes that he retains enough support among Republicans in Congress to prevent majority Democrats from forcing a quick withdrawal. He's probably right.
What's left is the status quo, guaranteeing a very divisive presidential campaign next year with Iraq remaining at center stage. Democratic candidates such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards are already arguing for faster disengagement. Many Republicans worry that Bush is more interested in staying the course in Iraq than in helping his party. An admirable commitment to principle, perhaps, but gop leaders say that if Iraq doesn't go well, congressional Republicans are headed for disaster.
So Long to the squabbler. Hello to the Plain Talker
Tony Snow, who left the West Wing last week after 16 months, was the ninth White House press secretary I've covered over the past 21 years. Reflecting his background as a conservative commentator, he focused above all on sparring with reporters at his daily briefings, just as he used to do with guests on tv and radio. Some West Wing insiders snarkily referred to the briefings as "The Tony Snow Show." But President Bush liked the feisty approach. Reporters respected Snow for confronting his diagnosis of recurring cancer with unrelenting optimism. But on the professional level, they say he wasn't very interested in the more mundane aspects of his job, such as providing insights into his boss as a flesh-and-blood human being or explaining decisions with more than boilerplate or sharp ripostes. Dana Perino, Snow's successor, isn't such a forceful personality, nor does she relish the daily tug of war. But she may return to a more traditional—and many pros in the press corps would say beneficial—role for the press secretary. This would mean serving not only as chief spinner but as a straightforward dispenser of facts.
Wooing the Golden State on Hawkeye Time
Here's a measure of how fast the presidential campaign is moving: There are only about 100 days before California voters—perhaps 2 million of them—receive absentee ballots for the megastate's crucial primary on February 5. The ballots go out a month in advance, so they should arrive in early January, when Iowa is expected to hold its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. This means Iowa will loom larger than ever, because the victor will get tremendous media attention and momentum just when all those California voters are receiving their ballots. Watch for the contenders to devote big resources to the Golden State as they court those absentees.