So now we’re hearing that President Bush, clearly recognizing the erosion within his Republican base, intends to recalibrate his message about Iraq, and express a stronger desire to reduce the number of U.S. troops at what he deems to be the earliest opportunity. Or something like that. His aides are hinting that, as early as today, he will begin to unveil “his vision for the post-surge,” presumably as a counterweight to all the Bush visions that have come to naught thus far.
But, amidst the latest evidence that the war has already cost the American taxpayers nearly half a trillion dollars, with nearly 3600 U.S. soldiers dead, and with more than 70 percent of the electorate now favoring the withdrawal of nearly all troops by next April, the big question is whether restive Senate Republicans – particularly the 10 members who are already distancing themselves from Bush – will buy the idea that the Decider has suddenly learned humility.
They won’t fall for that. They know he is only trying to buy time – until the Petraeus status report in September, at which point he will try to buy even more time. They can perhaps seize upon one slender reed - the latest USA Today/ Gallup poll says that a majority of Americans are still willing to wait until September - but the political momentum is clearly for a strategy change, sooner rather than later.
Bush is starting to sound like Michael Corleone in Godfather II, at least in the scene when his wife Kay announces that she’s leaving him. His response: “Kay, in time you’ll feel differently. You’ll be glad I stopped you now…I’ll make it up to you. I’m going to change. I’ll change. I’ve learned that I have the strength to change…And we’ll go on, you and I. We’ll go on.”
Moments later, he slapped her.
The Senate Republicans are tired of getting slapped around; even Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the chamber, said something quite remarkable the other day. McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2008, said: “The majority of the public has decided the Iraq effort is not worth it. That puts a lot of pressure on Congress to act because public opinion in a democracy is not irrelevant.” (Nice of him to say that.)
Does Bush really have the strength to change? Consider all aspects of the current spin game. On the one hand, White House sources are saying that Bush might approve a gradual troop withdrawal, and be willing to accept less ambitious goals. On the other hand, Bush said today in Ohio, "we've got a plan to lead to victory." (Remind me...have we heard that one before?) And press secretary Tony Show appeared this morning on The Today Show, and seemed not to be ceding much of anything: “We need to give our forces time to show what they have done…We are at the very beginning stages of an effort to try to create the space so the Iraqis can stand up for themselves…(We are) going to try to find even more nuanced ways of trying to measure success.”
This is what happens when a president loses his political mojo – he has to make conciliatory noises to the critics in his own party, while also somehow signaling to his most diehard loyalists that he still has the old resolve. Snow was dispatched this morning to perform the latter task. The war hawks may be out of touch with landslide majority American opinion, but they’re still a vital part of Bush’s base.
Among Snow’s intended targets was Bill Kristol, the longtime neoconservative activist who edits Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard magazine. Kristol went ballistic yesterday, in the wake of reports that Bush might cede some ground to his war critics. Kristol derided the dissident GOP senators as “the current calamity-Janes of the Republican party,” and warned that if Bush caves in to this “insane, irrational panic,” he “would properly be viewed as a feckless, irresolute president, incapable of seeing his own strategy through a couple of months of controversy before abandoning it.” All told, here’s Kristol’s sage suggestion: “The best strategy for the president is to hold firm.”
But, for Bush, here’s the problem: He’s stuck between the mainstream Republicans who are waking up to political reality (McConnell’s belated recognition that “public opinion in a democracy is not irrelevant”), and the home front warriors, such as Kristol, who have been wrong about Iraq every step of the way, and who therefore would appear to lack the credibility to offer new advice.
Kristol is the same guy who said, on April 1, 2003: “There’s been a certain amount of pop psychology in America…that the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni, and that the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s almost no evidence of that at all.” He’s the same guy once said: “Nor is there any doubt that after Sept. 11, Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction pose a danger to us that we hadn’t grasped before.” He once said that “reconstructing Iraq may prove to be a less difficult task than the challenge of building a viable state in Afghanistan.” And last winter, he dismissed the bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s recommendations – including its call for a reduced U.S. presence in Iraq – as “deeply irresponsible.”
Yet today, mainstream Senate Republicans such as Lamar Alexander and John Sununu are backing a bill to put the ISG’s recommendations into effect – and that’s one of the milder options now on the table. As I mentioned here last Friday, the new GOP dissidents have yet to back up their defiant words with actual antiwar votes, but clearly that prospect is growing. If Bush sincerely intends to bond anew with the GOP, and forestall further erosion, he may be well advised to stiff the tainted neoconservative prophets and cede substantive ground.
Bill Kristol, on many other fronts, is a smart and perceptive guy. And, as I sought to demonstrate in my latest newspaper column, he was downright prescient, back in 1999, about how the conservatives intended to remake the U. S. Supreme Court, in the aftermath of a Republican presidential victory.
By the way, the latest USA Today-Gallup poll (referenced near the top of today's post) also contains this little nugget:
When asked whether Bush was right to commute Scooter Libby's jail sentence, 13 percent said yes. Sixty-six percent said no.
No wonder most Capitol Hill Republicans have been staying far away from that one. The only Republican willing to brave the Sunday shows and defend Bush's decision was Utah congressman Chris Cannon, whose predictable response was to change the subject to Bill Clinton.
The latest on the McCain campaign meltdown: This morning, his two top strategists quit. In terms of inside baseball, this is very big news.
Early last week, while insisting that McCain's fundraising crisis was no big deal, campaign manager Terry Nelson said he was honored to forego a paycheck and toil for McCain free of charge. Now he says it was a “tremendous honor” to serve McCain, but he won’t do it any longer. Nevertheless, “I believe John McCain is the most experienced and prepared candidate to represent the Republican Party and defeat the Democratic nominee next year."
Nelson was a relative newcomer to the McCain fold. Not so John Weaver, the chief strategist, who stuck with and suffered with McCain, amidst the smears from unnamed Bush partisans, during the 2000 primary season. But now Weaver is leaving, as well. He too says it was an “honor” to serve McCain; moreover, “There is only one person equipped to serve as our nation's chief executive and deal with the challenges we face, and that person is John McCain.”
If they still think he’s the best candidate, why are they bailing? The latest reports indicate that McCain fired Nelson, prompting Weaver to quit, and, in turn, prompting longtime McCain intimate Mark Salter (co-author of McCain's books) to quit as well.
No doubt we'll learn more about what triggered this implosion, which will surely feed the perception that the purported Straight Talk Express is out of gas. For McCain, maybe this exodus is an act of mercy, because there’s virtually no chance that an unreconstructed Iraq war hawk can win the presidency in 2008.