Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Pyrrhic Republican victory

So, in political terms, which side “won” the latest inconclusive Senate battle over Iraq?

It can certainly be argued that Harry Reid’s Democrats look like losers, because they have failed yet again to find a way to put the brakes on President Bush’s war strategy. Stuck with their slim majority, the Democrats were able to coax only a handful of Republicans to side with them on the key procedural issue; in plain English, the Democrats couldn’t muster the 60 votes needed to cut off the Republican filibuster and thus bring the Reid-Levin troop withdrawal bill to the floor for an up-or-down vote on the merits. (A majority of 52 senators did vote to let the pullout bill come to the floor, but that wasn't enough.) So, certainly in the parliamentary sense, the Republicans and their beleaguered president have won another round.

But the political shorthand is damaging for the GOP. In essence, Bush’s enablers have again defied the will of the American landslide majority. The latest CBS News-New York Times poll, released yesterday, reports that 61 percent are willing to continue financing the war – but only on the condition that lawmakers enact a timetable for troop withdrawal. A mere 28 percent support continued financing without a pullout timetable, a percentage that roughly parallels Bush’s popularity rating. On a separate question, even half of all surveyed Republicans say the war is going badly.

The upshot is that, given the ever-souring national mood, many Senate Republicans are in virtually no position to stick with Bush on Iraq beyond the September firewall. They stayed firm in July by floating the fig-leaf argument that lawmakers should wait for Gen. Petraeus’ September report before trying anything new. Which means that, roughly eight weeks from now, they’re going to faced with a difficult decision – whether to remain loyal Bushies, or take steps to save their political hides.

Certainly, despite their fondest hopes, they will get little guidance from Petreaus. There’s no way that he is going to show up on Capitol Hill with an announcement that he sees bright light at the end of the tunnel. He will hem and haw, he will talk about progress here and setbacks there, and he will ask for more time. He signaled as much yesterday, during his guest appearance on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show.

Hewitt, the conservative host, trying as always to lob softballs, asked: “Now you’re due to make a report back in September, I don’t know if it’s early, mid or late September, General Petraeus, is that enough time to really get a fix on how the surge is progressing?” And Petraeus replied, “Well, I have always said that we will have a sense by that time of basically, of how things are going, have we been able to achieve progress on the ground, where have there been shortfalls, and so forth. And I think that is a reasonable amount of time to have had all the forces on the ground, again, for about three months, to have that kind of sense. But that’s all it is going to be.”

So the Republicans, while winning the parliamentary battle yesterday, are slowly and incrementally losing the political war.


Following up on the Fred Thompson story I mentioned a week ago:

Remember how the ostensible GOP savior and great conservative hope was pleading amnesia in the wake of reports that, as a Washington lobbyist in 1991 and 1992, he had done some backroom lobbying for an abortion-rights group? Remember how his press secretary declared that Thompson had never done any such lobbying at all, while Thompson himself was saying he had no “recollection” of taking money from the kind of people who are viewed by conservatives as baby-killers?

Well, now it turns out that, according to a fresh report on the billing records, Thompson conferred with the president of the abortion rights group on 22 separate occasions, put in roughly 20 hours of work overall, and lobbied officials of the senior George Bush administration over a total span of 3.3 hours.

By the way, this story is good news for Mitt Romney, who will be fighting Thompson for conservative primary voters if or when Thompson finally decides to officially take the plunge. Romney already has a long history of flip-flops, as he has sought to tweak his track record for pandering purposes, and no doubt he will welcome the company – since some conservatives might look amiss at a candidate who worked as a lobbyist gun for hire, sometimes at variance with conservative principles.

Thompson’s mission, on behalf of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, was to persuade senior George Bush officials to overturn a federal “gag rule” that banned tax-financed clinics from giving out abortion information. He got $5000 for his persuasion efforts. Somehow he omitted mention of that payday when, as a Senate candidate in 1994, he promised conservative Tennesseans that he would not support tax-financed clinics that recommend “abortion as a method of birth control.”

Or maybe he didn’t consciously omit anything. Maybe, a mere two years removed from his 20 hours of work and 22 conversations, he had already managed to purge the episode from his mind.

Or maybe the question is: What did he know, and when did he stop knowing it?