In Congress, Iraq is a Political Quagmire
Behind the war debate, a struggle for strategic advantage
They've spent weeks searching for an answer to Iraq. And now they think they have it. House Democratic leaders are pushing an appropriations bill that sets a firm timetable for President Bush to certify progress in Iraq and that leads to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by September 2008. Trouble is, many rank-and-file Democrats in the House aren't onboard, Republicans are opposed, and Bush has pledged a veto. Senate Democrats aren't any better off. They still haven't had a single vote on Iraq.
Whatever the legislative gambits surrounding the very difficult substantive issue of how to deal with Iraq, there is a much wider PR battle being waged in the media and in Washington's backrooms as the parties jockey for political advantage. It's a battle of rhetoric and posturing, words and phrases. And one that will last through to the 2008 presidential election.
Each side has its own complex equation of tactics and challenges. President Bush stresses "victory" above all else and isn't wavering from his plan to add more than 25,000 troops to the battlefield. Until recently, Bush promoted benchmarks and timelines for the Iraqis-a transfer of sovereignty and elections, for example-for the public to measure progress. It was a strategy based in part on research by Duke University Profs. Peter Feaver (now a White House staffer) and Christopher Gelpi. Now, Gelpi says, "there isn't much Bush can do" to change public opinion unless conditions in Iraq improve. The White House might have quietly reduced its talk of benchmarks, he says, because of the risk that "you set up a benchmark and you don't meet it."
Newly empowered Democrats like Rep. John Murtha, meanwhile, want to face down Bush. But they're walking a fine line, too: responding to the public's deep concerns over Iraq, while not appearing weak on national security. And they have internal divisions to bridge. Left-wing Democrats want a speedy end to the war. "No more chances," says Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. Conservative Democrats worry about imperiling their national security credentials and driving away independent voters. Democrats hammer the message that more troops amount to an "escalation"-some form of this word appearing in the Congressional Record more than 1,000 times since February 1-not a "surge." They're in favor of "readiness" and "redeployment." In talking points sent to Democratic press secretaries, leaders stress that they "will not cut off funding" and that they "will ensure our troops have everything they need," while attempting to shift attention to al Qaeda and Afghanistan.
Loaded words. On the Republican side, disparate House and Senate aides are closely coordinating strategy. They accuse Democrats of "micromanaging" the war with a "slow bleed" strategy. Republicans use phrases such as "we will not cut off funds" and "we support the troops"-much like Democrats-while also sometimes labeling the increase in troops the "Petraeus plan"-referring to Gen. David Petraeus, the widely respected new commander in Iraq-not the "Bush plan."
So far, Republicans have successfully framed the debate so that any failure in Iraq would be the Democrats' fault, says George Lakoff, University of California professor and author of a book on how progressives should argue. Democrats, he says, are "missing a great opportunity" to present the war to the public as a "betrayal of trust" by the president. A recent poll shows Republican attacks resonate strongly in 50 of the closest congressional districts. The attacks "are not trivial," says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
Still, Democrats have burnished their defense image recently: Gallup polls show support for congressional Democrats on dealing with terrorism increased from 21 percent in April 2002 to 46 percent before the fall elections; Republicans dropped from 54 percent to 41 percent. And Greenberg says there is a strong mandate for Congress to force Bush to change course. But the details of that change could make all the difference.
This story appears in the March 19, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.