Friday, May 11, 2007

Revolt of the GOP moderates

Here’s an interesting new quote from Capitol Hill: “We need to get out of the combat business in Iraq,” by setting a timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal, in accordance with the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

Surely this must be a defeatist Democrat who has sold his soul to, right? Nope. The senator who uttered those remarks yesterday was none other than Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee – a heretofore loyal Bushie on Iraq.

Meanwhile, we now have Senator Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, working up a bill that would require President Bush to roll back U.S. troop levels to pre-Surge numbers if the Iraqi government fails to meet specific benchmarks of progress.

Meanwhile, even House Republican leader John Boehner is saying that rank-and-file Republican patience is likely to run out by early autumn; as he put it the other day, “By the time we get to September, October, members are going to want to know how well this (Surge) is working, and if it isn’t, what’s Plan B.” Boehner was later seconded by Maine Senator Susan Collins, who is up for re-election next year in a state where antiwar fervor is now reportedly strong; in her words, “I do believe there comes a point in September where, if it’s evident that the new strategy is not successful and it’s not going to succeed, that we do have to change course. And that means looking at all the options, including a plan for withdrawing.”

Meanwhile, this week, we also learned that a delegation of elected Republican moderates trekked to the White House to perform a task that was once deemed to be unthinkable: Piercing the Bush bubble and telling Bush to his face that it was past time for him to start dwelling in the real world, to recognize the wreckage of his credibility, to grasp the fact that most Americans want him to be held accountable for his failures – and to understand that further intransigence on Iraq may well wreck the Republican party in 2008. One congressman reportedly told Bush, “My district is prepared for defeat.”

I, as well as many other observers, have argued all along that the top political story this year would be the potential willingness of beleaguered congressional Republicans to liberate themselves at last from Bush fealty, to grasp the fact that Bush has been driving them over a cliff, and to communicate these concerns to Bush in an effort to force a change of course in Iraq. This finally appears to be happening; barring an unlikely miracle in Iraq, the trend can only accelerate.

GOP moderates are seriously imperiled in 2008; they tend to represent states and districts where antiwar sentiment is strong. It’s noteworthy that the meeting with Bush was organized by House Republicans from Illinois and Pennsylvania (key states in the ’08 presidential race), and that even a congressman from Virginia (an increasingly competitive state) felt compelled to tell Bush that, in one section of his district, he estimated that support for the president had fallen to…five percent.

On the Senate side, meanwhile, four Republicans are thought to be vulnerable in 2008: Collins, John Sununu of New Hamshire, Gordon Smith of Oregon, and Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Another, Wayne Allard is vacating his seat in a state (Colorado) that has been trending Democratic. Collins, Smith, and Coleman hail from states that voted for John Kerry in 2004. Sununu hails from a state where voters in 2006, driven by distaste for the war, kicked two House Republican incumbents out of their jobs – giving the Democrats both seats for the first time since 1915.

Naturally, there are still some Bush defenders who think that the revolt of the moderates is either no big deal, or simply irrelevant. Conservative commentator John Podhoretz writes today that the delegation of 11 moderates who met with Bush constitutes only five percent of all the Republicans currently serving in Congress. (Quiz for Podhoretz: How many congressional Republicans went to the White House in August 1974, to tell Richard Nixon that he had lost his party’s support on Watergate? Answer: three.)

And it’s Dick Cheney (no surprise) who thinks that the moderate revolt is irrelevant, when compared to the importance of the glorious American mission in Iraq. As he told Fox News yesterday, “We didn't get elected to worry just about the fate of the Republican Party.”

The reality, however, is that, beginning this autumn, Bush and Cheney may find it difficult to prosecute the war as they see fit. If the war is still going badly, and if Gen. David Patraeus fails to deliver a credibly sunny forecast, a sizeable number of vulnerable Republican incumbents might bail out on Bush (and vote with the Democrats for a change of course) in an effort to save their political hides. That might not be the most enlightened rationale for winding down the U.S. combat role, but, at this point, a landslide majority of the American people would welcome any motivation for doing so.