Thursday, January 18, 2007

The GOP's choices: sullen acquiesence or outright rebellion?

President Bush has become such a drag on his party’s fortunes that those who are lugging his baggage can’t resist venting their frustrations.

Case in point: Conservative columnist Robert Novak, who has good GOP sources, writes today about “the sense of impending political doom that clutches Republican hearts,” and quotes a party strategist who says, “Iraq is a black hole for the Republican party.” Then Novak writes this: “One nationally prominent Republican pollster reported confidentially on Capitol Hill after the president's speech that if U.S. boots are still on the ground in Iraq and U.S. blood is still being spilled there at the end of (this) year, the GOP disaster in 2008 will eclipse 2006.”

Hence the focus today, and in the weeks ahead, on the best political story in Washington: The distinct possibility that a sizeable number of Republican lawmakers – worried about their own future prospects, cognizant of growing antiwar sentiment back home, and convinced that the Bush White House is in its last throes – will dump the Decider and vote for a bipartisan congressional resolution opposing his plan to feed 21,500 more soldiers into the Iraq fire.

That kind of thing doesn’t happen very often; congressional Republicans, far more often than their Democratic counterparts, tend not to be rebellious. The GOP political culture stresses discipline and respect for hierarchy, and these values are most strongly exhibited when the GOP has one of its own in the White House.

Extraordinary circumstances are required for Republican foot soldiers to stand up and defect. In fact, this has not happened en masse since 1974, when they felt compelled to bail out on Richard Nixon as the storm clouds of impeachment were drawing closer. In the end, a delegation of Republicans, led by senators Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, trekked to Nixon’s office and told him that he had lost his party’s support, that the rank and file – forced to choose between loyalty to him, and loyalty to the ticked off folks back home – had chosen the latter.

The current situation isn’t exactly analogous, of course, because (notwithstanding the desires of some anti-Bush activists), the president is not facing impeachment. He is, however, facing a potential vote on a bipartisan resolution that would (a) symbolically humiliate him, (b) denounce his handling of the mission on which he has staked his legacy, and (c) basically reduce him to
relevence via veto pen for the rest of his tenure.

The resolution (text included here) was introduced yesterday, with co-sponsorship from Republican senator and Army veteran Chuck Hagel; on ABC this morning, Hagel said, “To feed more American troops into this bloodbath is wrong.” The measure – which currently states that “it is not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq” – has no teeth. It can’t force Bush to do anything. But, if passed with sizeable Republican support (and there have been reports that as many as a dozen of the 49 senators could back it), it would amount to a vote of no-confidence. When votes like that are conducted in parliamentary democracies such as Britain’s, the people in power lose their jobs.

Here’s the mood that Republican lawmakers are facing right now: According to the latest Fox News poll, released this afternoon, six in 10 Americans currently oppose the Bush escalation plan (the same share reported by other polls this week). More strikingly, in the Fox survey, 57 percent said they would vote not to finance the increase in troops. Even 32 percent of Republican respondents feel that way. (Maybe this helps explain the glaring omission in GOP chairman Ken Mehlman's farewell speech this afternoon. I checked the text. Not once did he utter the word Iraq.)

So it’s not surprising that Bush keeps inviting Republican lawmakers to the White House for chats about the political way forward; and that Republican leaders on Capitol Hill keep pulling the lawmakers into closed-door meetings. This is the equivalent of trying to frantically bail water from a leaky vessel.

The latest behavior from Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki isn’t going to make these Republicans feel any better. The one assurance sought by the GOP lawmakers is that the additional troops will be sent for a good reason, that Bush’s willingness to escalate will be matched by Maliki’s willingness to clean up his own act and go after the Shiite militias (his own allies) that are part of the problem. Yet Maliki yesterday indicated that he would prefer a reduction of U.S. troops within the next three to six months; and that he, as leader of a sovereign nation, doesn’t like it whenever Bush and his surrogates suggest that the Iraqi government had better shape up or else.

Here’s the money quote from Maliki: "Such attacks by the Bush war team “give morale boosts for the terrorists and push them toward making an extra effort and making them believe they have defeated the American administration.” Note the irony. At the White House this week, Bush spokesman Tony Snow has been busy updating the old Karl Rove argument, suggesting that the impending Senate resolution might be tantamount to aiding terrorist morale….and here is Bush’s client, the guy we are banking on to make the escalation plan work, accusing Bush of aiding terrorist morale.

No wonder Bush’s water-carriers in the congressional leadership have failed to assuage the rank and file. Nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook said the other day that he wouldn’t be surprised if as many as 60 to 65 senators (there are only 51 Democrats) wind up backing the resolution, which may require some rewording in order to get more Republicans on board. Then the House would push its own equivalent measure.

It would appear, at the moment, that the best Bush can hope for is that the vast majority of Republicans simply take a vow of silence, or that they grumble skeptically with muted voices, or that they bob and weave and stall in the hope that maybe the Democrats will overreach. None of those options constitutes the kind of full-throated roar of approval that Bush used to expect back in the day. But right now sullen acquiescence is the best he can get. That’s what happens to a president when his political capital is spent.