Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The GOP and Iraq: Voting for conscience over loyalty

I suggested recently that Republican angst over Iraq would be the top political story of 2007, and the evidence continues to mount:

It is clear, from the latest reports, that members of the Senate minority no longer have any desire to replicate past behavior and march in virtual lockstep behind their commander in chief. Quite the contrary, in fact. While trying to decide what kind of statement they should make about President Bush’s troop escalation strategy, it now appears that they are running in as many as seven directions.

There’s the Democratic-driven Senate resolution which declares that hiking the troop tally is “not in the national interest.” There’s a Republican alternative which says much the same thing, albeit in softer language. And there are perhaps five different drafts, offered by Bush loyalists, which seek in various ways to express support for the latest White House strategy, while, in some cases, still acknowledging that Iraq is a mess. The loyalists aren’t enthused about Bush’s troop hike, either; their aim is merely to persuade their restive GOP colleagues to stay away from the toughest anti-escalation statements.

It’s rare, in the Bush era, for Republicans to be splintered in this fashion (and there’s also a faction that is unhappy with the war, unhappy with the troop hike, yet skittish about voting for any resolution). The key remark was uttered yesterday by Trent Lott, the Mississippi senator whose job, as minority whip, is to count heads. Thinking ahead to the Senate debate on Iraq slated for next week, Lott said that he would not try to rally his colleagues to support one single approach; rather, he’ll tell them to “vote their conscience.”

That’s a stunning comment. For six years, the congressional GOP leaders had typically decreed that senators (and House members) should vote as the Bush White House wanted them to vote. But now Lott is essentially saying, “You’re under no obligation to follow Bush over a cliff, if that is your concern. Go do whatever you have to do, in order to save your own political skin back home.”

The same message was voiced yesterday by the GOP leader in the House, where pro-White House discipline reigned supreme until the ’06 election debacle. The word now, from John Boehner, is that, after the Senate takes action and the Iraq debate moves to the House side, “we’re going to let our members vote they way they want to.”

The Bush loyalists in the Senate are trying to rally their colleagues by offering all kinds of palliatives, including a draft resolution from New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg that would draw a line in the sand with Democrats, by declaring that any future cutoff of money to troops in the field should be deemed unacceptable. (By the way, this is the same Judd Gregg who, on Oct. 4, 1993, deemed it quite acceptable for the Senate to take strong action while President Clinton had troops in the field in Somalia: “I hope that we, as a Senate, will proceed to discuss the issue of Somalia….in the immediate future, before any more American lives are lost; and that we shall put into definition and some focus what is our purpose there and, most importantly, how we intend to disengage - or, if it is our decision, how we intend to engage pursuant to the laws which we, as a nation, have as a constitutional democracy.”)

But perhaps the GOP’s predicament can be most easily gauged by looking at the pro-Bush resolution being readied by John McCain and Lindsey Graham. They want to condition their support for the troop hike with yet another round of “benchmarks” designed to get the Shia-dominated Iraqi government to finally shape up. The problem is, this kind of language is being undercut by events, because even Bush administration surrogates admit that existing benchmarks haven’t been working.

On Capitol Hill yesterday, Admiral William Fallon, the nominee to run U.S. forces in the Middle East, testified: “Maybe we ought to redefine the goals here a bit and do something that’s more realistic in terms of getting some progress…Time is running out.” And elsewhere, Democrats released a letter from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said that the Iraqi government has already flunked a number of U.S. benchmarks, such as the need to share power and oil wealth with the Sunnis.

In other words, for many of the Republicans searching for safe haven, McCain’s approach might look like a dead end, the equivalent of investing money in a lousy stock. And on the political front, it’s clear that defending Bush, and doing it unsuccessfully, is hurting McCain’s political stock; damaged by the exodus of independent voters who once saw him as a “maverick,” he now trails Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards in early presidential polls.

But speaking of the Democrats, it’s also hard to chart their Iraq stances without a scorecard. Clinton says she wants the troops to leave by January 2009, Obama said yesterday that he wants the troops to leave by March 2008, Edwards says he wants 40,000 of those troops to leave right now; Clinton and Obama currently oppose an immediate cutoff of troop escalation money, while Edwards (who doesn’t have to actually vote, since he’s an ex-senator) wants a cutoff right now…it’s a crowded field on the center-left.

Which brings us to Joe Biden, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman and ’08 presidential hopeful, who demonstrates, in a newly-posted interview, the traditional Democratic appetite for intramural combat (the kind of combat that Republicans are traditionally more adept at avoiding). He dismissed Clinton’s Iraq ideas as “very bad,” he dismissed Obama as “a one-term,” and then he went after Edwards’ proposal for pulling out 40,000 troops right away:

“John Edwards wants you and all the Democrats to think, ‘I want us out of there,’ but when you come back and you say, ‘O.K., John, what about the chaos that will ensue? Do we have any interest, John, left in the region?’ Well, John will have to answer yes or no. If he says yes, what are they? What are those interests, John? How do you protect those interests, John, if you are completely withdrawn? Are you withdrawn from the region, John? Are you withdrawn from Iraq, John? In what period? So all this stuff is like so much Fluffernutter out there.”

You’ve gotta love those mocking references to “John.” That’s Biden’s way of saying “the pretty boy left the Senate after only one term, so he doesn’t deserve to be addressed as ‘senator,’ whereas I’m the guy with the status and foreign policy know-how.”

Stay tuned for the Democratic candidate debate scheduled for New Hampshire in early April, with CNN in attendance. The Republican candidates, who will also debate, are still arguably the bigger story, because it’s their guy who has run this war. But the Democrats, hewing to the old Will Rogers line, will probably put on the better show. Starting with the fact that they won't be all white guys.