Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A bellwether Republican defects on Iraq

The Bush administration has lost Dick Lugar, and that’s akin to a seismic crack appearing in the wall of a dam.

Given the extent of the debacle in Iraq, and the impending ’08 election calendar, it was probably inevitable that a respected Republican senator with strong foreign policy credentials would publicly renounce the Bush war strategy and thus provide political cover for timorous GOP colleagues who have long yearned to do the same. All year long the White House has tried to forestall such an event, by perpetually pleading for more patience, but the clock ran out on Monday night.

Dick Lugar – the senior senator from red-state Indiana, a Bush loyalist on every key Iraq vote dating back to 2002, winner of landslides in all his Senate elections (especially in 2006, when he didn’t even draw a Democratic opponent), a long-acknowledged dean of the GOP foreign policy establishment, a former Foreign Relations Committee chairman, a guy who routinely draws near-zero ratings from liberal groups, a ’96 presidential candidate who warned about nuclear terrorism even though nobody listened – stood on the Senate floor and issued his declaration of independence from the Bush war team.

In short, he called for a reduction in U.S. troops. Others are bound to follow – GOP senator George Voinovich of Ohio joined Lugar in dissent yesterday, calling for "gradual military disengagement," and senator John Warner of Virginia said of Lugar, “I hail what he did” – in the clearest indication thus far that Republicans will refrain from joining hands with Bush and jumping off the cliff.

Apparently, there is an ebbing desire among Senate Republicans to buttress a president whose approval rating is now on the south side of 30 percent; as Warner reportedly said yesterday, “”you’ll be hearing a number of (Iraq) statements from other colleagues,” after the Fourth of July recess. They well recognize that Gen. David Petraeus is already trying to pre-spin his September report on the Surge by dampening any expectations of success; Lugar, by delivering his speech on Monday night, has signaled that the senators are not content to simply wait around until Petraeus shows up to plead for more patience.

If a Democrat had given the Lugar speech, Bush’s surrogates would have assailed the speaker as a defeatocrat who was obviously “rooting for failure.” But Lugar’s credentials have inoculated him from rhetorical attack; indeed, GOP senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said yesterday that when Lugar speaks out on foreign policy, “everybody tends to listen.”

Some Lugar highlights: “In my judgment, the current surge strategy is not an effective means of protecting (America’s national security) interests. Its prospects for success are too dependent on the actions of others who do not share our agenda. It relies on military power to achieve goals that it cannot achieve. It distances allies that we will need for any regional diplomatic effort. Its failure, without a careful transition to a back-up policy would intensify our loss of credibility. It uses tremendous amounts of resources that cannot be employed in other ways to secure our objectives. And it lacks domestic support that is necessary to sustain a policy of this type.”

Therefore, he said, “our security interests call for a downsizing and re-deployment of U.S. military forces…I believe that we do have viable options that could strengthen our position in the Middle East, and reduce the prospect of terrorism, regional war, and other calamities. But seizing these opportunities will require the president to downsize the U.S. military’s role in Iraq and place much more emphasis on diplomatic and economic options.”

Perhaps most tellingly, in a message to his normally supine Republican colleagues, this erstwhile Bush loyalist said: “We don’t owe the president our unquestioning agreement.”

With elections looming, elected Republicans can’t afford to march to Bush’s tune anymore. The latest CNN-Opinion Research poll, released yesterday, reports that 38 percent of grassroots Republicans now oppose the war – and that 42 percent now support the withdrawal of at least some U.S. troops from Iraq. Given this growing level of disaffection even within the GOP base, many senators and congressmen seeking re-election in 2008 are therefore well advised to create some distance (at least rhetorically, if not on actual war votes) from the lame-duck war commander. And any Republican who represents a swing state or swing district is doubly advised, given the sentiment of independent voters. The CNN poll reports that 63 percent of all Americans now support partial or full withdrawal.

Lugar, in his speech, specifically addressed the domestic political climate, arguing that Bush’s war strategy has already damaged his party: “Many political observers contend that voter dissatisfaction in 2006 with Administration policies in Iraq was the major factor in producing new Democratic Party majorities in both Houses of Congress.” He was clearly implying that further horrors await the GOP unless Bush changes course with all deliberate speed: “The president and his team must come to grips with the shortened political timeline in this country for military operations in Iraq. Some will argue that political timelines should always be subordinated to military necessity, but that is unrealistic in a democracy.”

If a Republican with tough ‘08 re-election prospects had made this argument, he might have been easily dismissed (at least by White House loyalists) as a nervous Nellie who was merely interested in saving his political skin. That's what happened several months ago, when Sen. Gordon Smith of blue-state Oregon, an imperiled '08 candidate, broke with Bush on Iraq. But Lugar’s credibility on this point is buttressed by the fact that his own political future is secure. A break with Bush is more significant when it’s staged by a red-state senator who has just won re-election with 87 percent of the vote.

This new GOP restiveness doesn’t necessarily translate into substantive Democratic victories, at least in the short term. For instance, Lugar didn’t declare that he would defect to the Democrats and vote this summer for a withdrawal timeline or anything else. But his willingness to speak out is further evidence of Bush’s growing isolation, and a fresh signal that Republicans are deeply concerned about the national mood and their ’08 prospects.

Looking ahead, perhaps the real question is, which ’08 GOP presidential candidate will read the tea leaves and adopt the Dick Lugar template?