Part 1 -- Republicans Facing Reality
[This article is in three parts. Part 2 will run tomorrow, and will deal with the nuts and bolts of how congressional Democrats will begin to end the war this September. Part 3 will run Friday, and detail the compromises which will be necessary to secure a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress.]
Good news is popping up in the political fight to end the war in Iraq. What may surprise you is that it's coming from the Republicans in Congress.
It shouldn't really be surprising. Democrats (other than Joe Lieberman, of course) are already on record voting to end the war. That's "good"... but it's not "news." The "'news" part is that Republicans are finally beginning to see the light. They gave Bush his surge, but -- come September -- Bush will have had his last chance (as they see it) and they're going to start voting to end the war, too.
The really good news is that this isn't just a few "RINOs" (Republicans In Name Only), moderate Republicans, or other perceived heretics; but rather the Congressional Republican leadership who is sending this message to the White House -- and (most importantly) that they're doing it now -- not even waiting for General Petraeus to report to them in September. The Republicans are giving off strong signals that they've already accepted that the surge is going to fail, and that the troops need to start coming home. Because the Democrats need some Republican votes (in both houses) to overcome a veto, the Republicans in Congress have always been the key to actually forcing President Bush to change course. So this is good news indeed.
From a George Will column last week about Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR):
Smith's loneliness may be assuaged in September, when Petraeus reports on the effects of the troop surge. ''There is,'' Smith says, ''a high expectation that we'' -- Republican senators -- ''will be able to vote for something different in September.'' And: ''I can,'' he says, ''think of a dozen Republican senators who will be with me in September.''
When you do the parliamentary math, that's not quite enough -- but it is a huge initial step in the right direction. The Democrats are going to need a minimum of 17, possibly 18 Republican votes (depending on the health of Democratic Senator Tim Johnson) in order to overturn a Bush veto. If one Republican senator is already predicting we've got 13, then Democrats only need to pick up a handful more in order to have a veto-proof majority on the issue. Which they will need, as Bush shows no signs whatsoever of facing up to reality this September.
The White House's current spin is to "lower the bar" -- to lower expectations for General Petraeus' report in September. Tony Snow's press conference from last Wednesday trotted this spin out for the mainstream media over and over again, while trying to admit that that wasn't what he was doing (the whole thing is worth reading just to watch Tony spin faster than a Texas tornado on espresso):
Q: Tony, whenever you, or the President, or anyone in the administration is asked about assessing how the surge is going, you point out not everyone is there yet, it's going to take a while -- 30 or 60 days. Are we going to see any softening of the September deadline for a pivotal assessment on how this is going?
MR. SNOW: You call it a pivotal assessment -- there are going to be regular assessments of what goes on -- what has been going on in Iraq. And I think in September you will have the first opportunity to have a little bit of a metric to see what happens when you have all the forces in place for the Baghdad security plan. I mean, that I think -- if you want a definitive judgment, I've warned from the very beginning about expecting some sort of magical thing to happen in September.
. . .
Q: Tony, can we go back to Ken's question for a second? Because it sounds like you're laying the groundwork for September to be recharacterized. I mean, it's been my impression that it is a critical moment of measure. The President seemed to accept such a reading in the last time he did a news conference. Are you saying now, not so much on September?
MR. SNOW: No -- if you go back and look at my comments, I've always warned against looking upon this as some great moment. I think the term I used was, like the Wizard of Oz where you go from black and white into color. This, instead, is -- in a time of war, things happen gradually. What you are looking for are firm metrics about what is going on. And it is naive to think, suddenly, boom, you snap a finger and you've got an instant change in the situation.
Tony did get even more surreal later on, as reporters pressed him on the issue:
Q: Tony, the President -- Jim is right -- that in the interview with Reuters a couple of weeks ago, the President, I believe, used the phrase, "critical moment," for September. Now you're saying it's not a pivotal moment. I mean, you don't seem on the same page with the President on that. Is it critical, or not?
MR. SNOW: No, the characterizations -- I'm just -- I think he's talking about a critical moment because it allows people again to take a look at what's happened with the security plan. You know, we have a lot of people saying, the plan hasn't worked. It's not even fully implemented. So I think we're parsing a little bit here. What I'm saying is if you are looking for a report that says, okay, the job is all done, we're complete, you're not going to find that in September. What you are going to find is: Attach preferred adjective here. You're going to have an opportunity to take a look at the metrics of what has happened in terms of not only what's gone on with U.S. forces, but also Iraqi forces, Iraqi police, provisional reconstruction teams, political progress, economic progress, all of those things. And that's an absolutely legitimate thing for everybody to look for.
Q: Would you attach an adjective here?
MR. SNOW: No, I'm trying to stay out of the adjectival business.
Probably a good idea, Tony. As we all know, the adjectival business is notoriously hard to break into. I mean, really -- "Attach preferred adjective here"?
Later in the press conference, he bluntly admitted: "...it is humanly impossible to solve all this before September. All right?"
OK, Tony, we definitely agree on that one, but we've been telling you that all along. Unfortunately, the Republicans on Capitol Hill don't appear to be accepting your memos any more. Here is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, on last Sunday's Face The Nation, with CBS News' Bob Schieffer [PDF transcript, or video]:
SCHIEFFER: And good morning again. We're starting this morning with the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell. He joins us from Oregon this morning.
Senator, the American ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, said this morning that the situation in Iraq is a mixed picture, but not a hopeless one. I guess I would ask you this: Will that be enough for the president to hold the support for the war that he now has among Republicans in the Senate?
Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Minority Leader): Well, I think most members of my conference in the Senate, Bob, believe the critical point to evaluate where we are is in September. That's when the big Petraeus-Crocker report is supposed to be presented. That's--you know, we've all been to one degree or another disappointed in the Iraqi government. They've not been able to do on the political side what they told us they would try to achieve. But I think the proper time to really make a serious evaluation of the direction we ought to head is in September.
SCHIEFFER: Well, you said the other day, and I'm going to use your words here, "the handwriting is on the wall, that we are going in a different direction in the fall, and I expect the president to lead it." What did you mean by that, Senator?
Sen. McCONNELL: Well, by that I mean the surge is going to come to an end, obviously. It's now--the buildup in troops is now complete. It will obviously go on over the summer. I think everybody anticipates that there's going to be a new strategy in the fall. I don't think we'll have the same level of troops, in all likelihood, that we have now. The Iraqis will have to step up, not only on the political side, but on the military side, to a greater extent. We're not there forever. I think they understand that, and the time to properly evaluate that, it strikes me, is in September.
From the other side of the Hill (and the other side of the TV dial), reports NBC's Tim Russert on last Sunday's Meet The Press, quoting Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner:
John Boehner, the leader of the Republicans in the House, said that September's "when Petraeus is required to report back to Congress on the progress of" the "'surge' policy." "Numerous Republicans," including himself, "have suggested there could be dramatic erosion in support within the GOP for the president and the war unless the political and military situation 'shows dramatic improvement.' "
Remember, the September deadline was originally floated by the White House -- and fully publicly endorsed by Bush -- as recently as last month. It still remains a mystery why Bush so strenuously objected to any form of timetable or deadline whatsoever being imposed upon his war; but then turned around and voluntarily imposed a deadline for progress on himself. But it is indeed an inconvenient and very public fact, and now the administration is attempting to backpedal away from the date as fast as they can. Which can only mean that they already know September's news from Petraeus is not going to be good.
American Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker (who also has to report to Congress in September on progress in Iraq), tried to aid the administration's effort to portray news from Iraq in the best possible light, but Arianna Huffington absolutely took him apart this week in her column. After watching his appearance on Meet The Press, I thought he was the poster-child for the "best impression of a deer-in-the-headlights award," but Arianna did me one better by labeling him "Crockerbot2000."
In Iraq, the Maliki government certainly isn't doing Bush any favors. It's still apparently even an open question whether they're going to take two months vacation this summer. Bush has been sending over everyone he can think of to tell Maliki to produce something politically helpful (to Bush) by September, but so far to no avail.
Bush's last hope, which he's been hoping for since last June, is passage of an Iraqi oil law (or "hydrocarbon law"). But watch for a bait-and-switch on this one. If Bush announces that the Iraqi parliament has passed such a law, read the fine print in the article. Because they've split this law into four separate bills, and only one of them is anywhere near passage. The one that may actually pass this summer is not the most important one (which decides who gets what money within Iraq), but rather a bill dealing with how Iraq will write their contracts for foreign oil companies.
Bush will no doubt trumpet this as a great victory for democracy and government in Iraq, but no one (most especially no Republicans) may be buying that rhetoric come September. Because by that point Bush may already have irretrievably lost his own party on the issue. After all, the White House trotted out the "South Korea" analogy just a few weeks ago, but nobody bought into that one either.
With every single Republican House member and 21 GOP Senators (some of them quite vulnerable, including Sen. Smith) up for election a little over a year after this September, Republicans are getting mighty nervous about their chances in '08. Many of them know that bucking the president on Iraq is the only hope they've got of getting reelected.
The magic numbers of Republicans jumping ship to watch for: 60 to 70 in the House -- 17 or 18 in the Senate. When Democrats hit both those numbers, the end of the war in Iraq will have truly begun.
John Boehner can call it: "dramatic erosion of support in the GOP," if he likes. I personally prefer the term: "rats leaving the sinking ship of Bush's Iraq fiasco."
[Tomorrow's article, Part 2, will examine the tactical choices facing the Democrats, and Part 3 will examine the realities of hammering out a workable political compromise.]
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