Surge Ignites Political Backfire

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It was really an astonishing thing to watch. The president had just given his much-ballyhooed prime-time speech on Iraq, recommending an additional 20,000 or so troops, trying to reignite support for his Iraq policy. Instead, he sparked a bipartisan rebellion on Capitol Hill that hasn't been seen in a very long while.

OK, so the Senate foreign relations panel looked a little bit like a New Hampshire town hall meeting–with seven folks on the committee who have, at one time or another, thought about being president. So it wasn't any surprise that they went at Secretary of State Condi Rice as if she were an enemy combatant.

What was astonishing was that the dismay was so bipartisan; by the end of the session, only one thing was very clear, and Sen. Joseph Biden (yes, a Democratic presidential candidate) summed it up best: "I think what occurred here today was fairly profound, in the sense that you heard 21 members–with one or two notable exceptions–expressing outright hostility, disagreement, and/or overwhelming concern with the president's proposal."

The problem on Capitol Hill is also that no one quite understands exactly what it is: The president said there would be no open-ended commitment, yet he didn't set benchmarks for withdrawal. It's not an easy plan to go home and sell to your constituents, especially with a war that is this unpopular.

The question now for the Democrats is what to do next. They spent much of yesterday behind closed doors trying to figure it out. Do they just pass a symbolic resolution disapproving of the president's policy and be done with it? Do they say they won't fund that policy, as Sen. Ted Kennedy would like? Or do they find a third way–one they're considering–which says you can't send any more troops to Iraq unless readiness levels in this country remain high? The symbolic sense-of-the-Senate resolution is a sure thing and will be voted on by the end of the month. Even though Republican leaders threatened a filibuster, the Democrats say they've got the 60 votes to block it–and they're not bluffing.

Here's the crux of the political story: Right now, President Bush owns this war, and rightly so. He even said so, taking complete responsibility in his speech the other night. (I believe we should give him credit: It's rare these days that a political leader steps up and says, "Blame me.") And the Democrats know if they start tinkering with money as a way to get the troops home, they will have to accept something they don't really want–responsibility for what happens next in Iraq.

No one has forgotten the lessons of Vietnam. How you get out of a war can be just as important as how you got into it.