Remember earlier this summer when Harry Reid and the Democrats vowed they were "going to hold the president's feet to the fire" on Iraq? Well, now it appears they've decided to play footsie with the White House instead and take what one Democratic strategist calls "a more nuanced approach" that includes backing off demands to set a firm withdrawal date.
In anticipation of next week's inevitably sunny side up -- and statistically cherry-picked -- report from Gen. Petraeus, the White House has cranked up its spin machine, and the Democrats are falling into their default duck-and-cover mode.
So we get Bush hopping off a plane in Australia after his eight-hour photo-op layover in Iraq and telling the Deputy Prime Minister: "We're kicking ass" -- while Democratic leaders let it be known they are hoping "to manage expectations" by lowering their sights on Iraq.
Bush is certainly not kicking ass in Iraq but next week he may be kicking ass in Washington.
Just last week, Reid was promising "I will not let these Republicans hide. When the Senate returns to Washington, I will force them to take vote, after vote, after vote on bringing an end to the war in Iraq."
Now the air on Capitol Hill is full of talk of "bipartisan compromise" and even Ken Salazar's insipid proposal, which Reid himself had previously rejected as a "toothless tiger," is getting renewed interest.
"I can't believe how Democrats are playing this game," a Republican strategist told me the other night. "They hold all the cards -- and they are folding."
This spineless approach is the last thing Democrats need. Do they have no memory of 2002 and 2004, when caution and timidity led to defeat? If 2008 doesn't turn out to be a landslide for Democrats, it will be because of the seeds of caution being planted now.
Perhaps the weight of Katie Couric's take on Iraq -- "real progress has been made there in terms of security and stability" -- was too much to bear. In the same way that once Cronkite turned against Vietnam Johnson knew the war was lost, it appears the Democrats believe that once Couric embraced the surge, it could no longer be resisted.
So next week, the collective wisdom of 16 intelligence agencies and the Government Accounting Office may be eclipsed by the cherry-picked stats of Petraeus and the administration. As the Washington Post reports, apparently certain kinds of violence in Iraq just don't count in the eyes of the administration. Literally -- they aren't being counted. Shot in the head from the front? Doesn't count. Shiite on Shiite bloodshed? Doesn't count (this despite escalating warfare between rival Shi'a groups in Basra). Sunni on Sunni violence? Doesn't count. As those radicals in the Iraq Study Group put it in their report: "Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals."
And good political strategy is difficult to make when you are constantly wondering how your decisions will look in a future attack ad. "This administration's capabilities of having Rose Garden press conferences and the kind of punitive rhetoric they're using is concerning to Members," explained Rep. Ellen Tauscher. "I don't think we have a vehicle [for withdrawal] that will get 60 votes in the Senate. In the absence of that, we're naked."
Well, better naked than castrated.
The Democrats' thinking on this is unfathomable -- it makes no sense logically, morally or politically. They have the majority of the American people wanting to bring this war to an end; a constant stream of tragic news from Iraq; and a president committed to "stay the course" despite all evidence that the course we are on is taking us over the cliff.
It's time for Democrats to stop sounding the retreat on ending the war and actually pay attention to John McCain, who said that if they "are serious that we ought to stop the war" they should "bring up a bill to cut off the funding and end it."
McCain is right. Exercising their Constitutional power of the purse is exactly what Democrats need to do if they are serious about ending the war. And if they are serious about winning in 2008.