Thursday, October 26, 2006

Is the Iraq issue more compelling than an October surprise?

Last night, while I was assessing the ’06 elections during a speaking gig in suburban Philadelphia, a Democrat in the audience asked me, “Do you think there will be an October surprise?”

The question was inevitable; at the moment, most Democrats – chastened by years of defeat – seem to be living in dread fear that Karl Rove and President Bush will show up in the Rose Garden on election eve with Osama bin Laden in chains. (Although, all politics aside, that would be a good thing.) Or, as Democratic fatalists surmise, maybe the “surprise” will be some lucky event that the Bush team didn’t anticipate at all.

Something, for instance, like the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling yesterday in favor of equal rights for gay civil unions.

I have no idea whether this development will be pivotal to GOP prospects on Nov. 7, given the tough national political environment that is dominated by the Bush administration missteps in Iraq. But this ruling – bestowing full legal rights on same-sex partners, in accordance with language in the state constitution – may well prompt some of the GOP’s disenchanted Christian conservative voters to rethink the notion of staying home on election day.

Many of these voters – who are crucial to Republican prospects in a number of key House races, in states such as Ohio, as well as in the South – have been soured by the GOP leadership’s failure to enact their agenda and to move speedily in the Mark Foley scandal. But now, for the first time in many weeks, a story has come along to remind them of what they passionately oppose: “activist judges” who imperil traditional morality. And the GOP will be eager to remind them that Republicans, if allowed to retain their majorities on Nov. 7, will continue their longstanding crusade against “activist judges.”

It should be noted that the “activist” terminology doesn’t apply so neatly to the New Jersey high court. All seven judges, Democratic and Republican appointees alike, ruled in favor of equal rights for civil unions. Three of the judges even believe, in accordance with their reading of the state constitution, that the institution of marriage should now be opened gay people – and all three are Republican appointees. But such nuances will not survive in a hot political climate. Christian conservative voters now have a fresh reason to vote, especially in the key states that could decide House and Senate control; as the Family Research Council, a religious right group, declared last night in an email which lamented the New Jersey ruling, “It should be clear to every voter that these elections count.”

Indeed, anti-gay marriage referenda – designed in the first place to lure these voters to the polls – are on the ballot next month in eight states, including Arizona, Colorado, Tennessee, and Virginia. I cite those four, because they are hosting potentially pivotal House and Senate races. The Republicans’ bid to hang onto the Senate may well hinge on whether they can keep their seats in Tennessee and Virginia, and Democrats in those states will not welcome any development that could stoke religious right turnout.

On the other hand, this may not rise to the level of an anti-Democratic surprise. Anti-gay marriage referenda helped galvanize the GOP base in 2004, but it is not 2004 anymore. Which brings us to the next item:


President Bush did little at his press conference yesterday to reassure most Americans (particularly independent swing voters, most of whom have abandoned him) that he has a fresh road map for success in Iraq. He said two noteworthy things, both of which are at variance with factual reality.

First, he insisted that “absolutely, we’re winning” in Iraq, and even the unlimited space available for blogging is insufficient for me to list all the evidence to the contrary, most of it provided by U.S. military authorities in his own government. Suffice it to say that his “absolutely, we’re winning” line is flatly contradicted by a new report issued by the nonpartisan United States Institute of Peace, an organization that is helping to sponsor the current reexamination of Iraq policy co-helmed by Bush family loyalist James Baker.

This report - entitled "Scenarios for the Insurgency in Iraq" - urges the Bush administration to “scale back” its lofty goals in Iraq, and establish, as one its top priorities, this more realistic objective: "Avoidance of disaster.” In fact, contrary to the claim that we're "winning," the report has a name for one of the possible future scenarios: "Descent into hell."

Second, Bush said at the press conference yesterday that he would like to see the Iraqis establish some "benchmarks," some performance timetables, so that they can demonstrate measurable progress to the American people. But within hours of his remarks, he was pointedly rebuked by the Iraqi prime minister whom he has repeatedly lauded. Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said he would not let the Americans push him around: “This is a government of the people’s will, and no one has the right to set a timetable for it.”

So, let’s review: Bush would like to see some benchmarks, yet he can’t insist because the Iraqis are now a free people and he doesn’t want to be seen as seeking to big foot these free people, yet at the same time, “America’s patience is not unlimited.”

Nor did Bush clear up these contradictions when he met separately yesterday with some hand-picked conservative journalists. Here are key excerpts:

"They were asking me today, 'put out benchmarks.' Well, it's a sovereign government. You just don't put out benchmarks. You work with the sovereign government to develop a way forward that's got enough pressure on them to move, but at the same time, they're comfortable with. Look, if we wanted to, we could put so much pressure on the Maliki government to topple it. What good would that do? We could put so many demands on them, it might satisfy people in the short-term, but it would defeat the purpose for victory in Iraq.....Part of the benchmark is precisely to create that sense of purpose for this government to have something to aim for....But I believe they're getting more crisp in their decision-making. That's one of the interesting things about Maliki, he appears to be a decision-maker. He doesn't like it when he's pushed too hard."

Part of the benchmark is precisely to create that sense of purpose for this government to have something to aim for....Quite a tongue-twister. We're three and a half years into this war, a big election is looming, but the president's only assurance to conservative voters is that he hopes the Iraqis can create a "sense of purpose."

The other night, a CBS correspondent summed up the White House predicament this way: "On the other hand, they read the polls, and they know that voters want a change in Iraq policy. But as far as any significant change, a White House official tells me, do not expect to see anything significant prior to Election Day. Quoting, 'You're not going to see anything before November 8th. It would be political suicide, and Karl Rove would never allow it.'"

In other words, the White House thinks it would suicide to dramatically change course and thus admit that it has erred on the war. But, more importantly, check out that quote, "Karl Rove would never allow it." That is a stark admission that, Bush policy is hostage to the political calendar, as decreed by the strategist-in-chief.

No wonder anxious Republicans see Iraq as a millstone. It’s also worth noting that the lame duck Senate Majority leader, Bill Frist, told a New Hampshire newspaper the other day that Republicans should “get Americans to focus on pocketbook issues and not on Iraq and the terror issue.”

What a difference four years can make. Back in 2002, word for word, that was precisely the strategy that Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle urged his troops to adopt. Change the subject, he said - and the Democrats got hammered for that in the elections. Then, as now, foreign policy was dominant. But this time, it’s the other party that wants to talk about it.