Friday, October 27, 2006

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Is it just me or did the earth move for everyone?

Ever since Bush and Cheney went to the Vietnam analogy well in talking about Iraq, it strikes me that the political ground has shifted.

In the past week alone, the White House has jettisoned the "stay the course" rhetoric, Bush has said in a press conference that he's dissatisfied with the current situation, and military commanders on the ground have painted an even bleaker picture.

From a policy perspective, it's good to see that the president is starting to think about other alternatives to simply staying the course. From a political perspective, however, my hunch is that this shift in rhetoric will be a disaster.

Why? For the past five years, Democrats have been vulnerable on national security issues. Bush and the Republicans projected a clear image of taking the war to the enemy, and never yielding in their drive to defeat radical Islamists. The Democrats, in contrast, projected either an antiwar position or a "yes, but" position. The former looked out of step with the American people, the latter looked like Republican lite. No matter how you sliced it, the Republicans held the upper hand.

The recent rhetorical shift on Iraq, however, has flipped this phenomenon on its head. If Bush acknowledges that "stay the course" is no longer a statisfying status quo, he's acknowledging that the Republican position for the past few years has not worked out too well. If that's the case, then Republicans are forced to offer alternatives with benchmarks or timetables or whatever. The administration has had these plans before, but politically, it looks like the GOP is gravitating towards the Democratic position rather than vice versa.

If this is what the political optics look like, then the Republicans will find themselves in the awkward position of being labeled as "Democrat lite" in their positions on Iraq. And in elections, lite never tastes as good as the real thing.

If these midterms really function as a referendum on U.S. foreign policy, then the GOP is in big trouble.

Of course, my political prognostications should be taken for what they are worth -- which is very little.

posted by Dan on 10.27.06 at 09:26 AM


Seems too subtle a shift to make a short-term difference and I rather doubt the rhetorical shift is working its way into the campaigns of various Republicans or the political advertising.

The main mood in the electorate seems to be simple exasperation with the current President and Congress. This is fed by the perception of failure in Iraq and the unending corruption scandals. This is why this year feels so much like 1994.

Interestingly, though, it does not seem to me that the Democrats have been able to close the deal, like the GOP did in 1980 ("There you go again") and 1994 ("Contract with America -- by golly, those Repubs do have a plan!!). This may be because the Dems have steadfastly avoided anything identifiable in their campaigns as a governing philosophy, other than "We're not Bush, and we're not daft enough to try to impeach him."

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 10.27.06 at 09:26 AM [permalink]

I don't think what Dan says here is wrong, necessarily, but the White House's rhetorical shift seems to me merely a ratification of something that was happening anyway. This election was bound to be largely a referendum on foreign policy and the war in particular, and holding to the same message on Iraq would only have reinforced the Democrats' theme that the President is out of touch.

Incidentally, it doesn't look to me as if the Democrats have made the best use of all the GOP's difficulties this fall. There is a limit to the number of Republican voters who will stay home (let alone vote for Democrats) because they disagree with their President about a war. Many Republicans who still like Bush, though, can be really put off by Congress. The Democrats had -- I think they still have -- an opportunity to use the Foley scandal as a hook on which to hang corruption investigations, wasteful government spending, one and a half-day Congressional work weeks, and indeed anything else that even sounds scandalous, and blame everything on Republican incumbents. They haven't done this very well. The problem, I suspect, is that nationally Democrats are still much too oriented to protecting their own incumbents. They're used to playing defense, not offense. Individual Democratic challengers, like Baron Hill in southern Indiana, have started to use the corruption issue more effectively, but the party generally has not.

It may turn out that voter disenchantment this year is so great that Democrats will pick up 30+ House seats and 6-7 Senate seats regardless. I'm just saying that in the Democrats' position I wouldn't assume Republicans who still support Bush are sure GOP votes this fall.

posted by: Zathras on 10.27.06 at 09:26 AM [permalink]

I think Drezner is spot on. This is disaster, not just for the mid-terms but for the remaining two years of the current Presidency. Bush was already fighting an undercurrent of Red State voters who thought we weren't doing enough in Iraq, this new timetable/alternative policy is going to add fuel to that fire.

And BTW, I don't think the Vietnam analogy is all that good. To me the better analogy is late 1951 Korea: stalemate in the field and growing resistance at home. What's particularly interesting is that it looks like Bush is going to get to play the role of both Truman AND Eisenhower.

posted by: kwo on 10.27.06 at 09:26 AM [permalink]

Accountability without consequences, benchmarks without timetables, responsibility without results, it's the new politics.

posted by: Lord on 10.27.06 at 09:26 AM [permalink]

Bush allowed Dems to redefine what staying the course actually means. The only alternative at this point is to help people remember what he's always said i.e., we must stay in Iraq until victory, but that doesn't mean we will not change our tactics and adjust troop levels as appropriate to obtain that victory.

posted by: rick on 10.27.06 at 09:26 AM [permalink]

It is very simple and always has beeen. Look at the demographics of the country. Beyond the obsession with Saddam, the outcome of this thing was written large as far back as 1991.

Having a Shia majority state and significant boon and prop for Iran was inevitable if you were going to try and setup a legitimate and stable goverenment.

The trouble is that there are lot of folks in the administration and in business who find this outcome untenable. They won't ever talk about it openly but their "Victory" is truely something indefinite and colonial.

posted by: Babar on 10.27.06 at 09:26 AM [permalink]

Far from losing only if leave, it was lost before we began by failing to plan for what would happen. From low expectations to none at all.

posted by: Lord on 10.27.06 at 09:26 AM [permalink]

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