Tom Edsall and the Enduring Myth of Republican Strength on Iraq

Since even before voters went to the polls on November 7 of last year to elect new Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate, there have been those who have advocated that Democrats stick to investigating what went wrong in Iraq but stay away from actually trying to enact a better policy through legislation. While many of those making this argument are themselves Democrats who believe that their party should move in such a direction, a number have been concern trolls from the outside -- either Republicans or establishment media types who in their concern for the viability of the Democratic Party suggest that the Democrats in Congress temper their move to assert their constitutional powers. A good example of this latter group is Tom Edsall, author of the poorly-timed "Building Red America" which essentially predicted in the early fall of 2006 that the Republicans had a permanent majority, who penned the following Op-Ed for The New York Times today.

THE Democratic majority in the House is trying to set policy for the Iraq war by committee -- a fractious and divided committee.

If the Democrats really want to play a role in the current Iraq debate, they should take a look at what John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are up to. These two Republican presidential contenders are pinning the blame for the current morass squarely on President Bush, rather than tackling the far more contentious project of how and when to bring the war to an end.

[...]

Otherwise, in 2008, despite years of crisis in Iraq, the usual dichotomy may well reassert itself: that Republicans are historically strong on defense, and Democrats historically weak. The fact remains that nearly 40 years of Democratic opposition to weapons spending, calls for cuts in the Pentagon budget and backing of broad constraints on covert operations have made the party -- fairly or unfairly -- an easier mark than the Republicans for those seeking to find a culprit for military collapse in Iraq.

If Democrats want to consolidate their recent political gains, they cannot afford to make themselves susceptible to charges that they contributed to American defeat overseas. But one sure way for them to lay themselves open to criticism is to do what they're doing now -- tinkering with wartime policy out of public view, vote-swapping and cutting deals to accommodate competing party interests.

I'd like to take this point by point, if you'll oblige me, first beginning with the notion that John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are gaining traction with their language on the issue of Iraq. As pro-surge Republicans completely on board with the substance of George W. Bush's Iraq policy, if not its implementation, both Giuliani and McCain -- as well as the Republican Party as a whole -- are susceptible to the same kind of overwhelming opposition as is the President. To take just one metric from recent polling, voters trust Democrats in Congress over President Bush on the issue of Iraq by a 20-point margin. To grab another number from recent polling, voters oppose the increase in American troops in Iraq by somewhere between a 3-to-2 margin and a 2-to-1 margin. As if these data were not enough for you, the Democrats won control of the House by a 6- to 7-point margin nationally, carrying the 35 percent of Americans who said Iraq was extremely important to their vote by a 60 percent to 39 percent margin.

But even getting away from these numbers, which may or may not hold exactly they are for the next year and a half, it is important to ask the following question: How likely is it really for a significant portion of the large majority of Americans opposed to the Iraq War to support a candidate who favors the unending continuation of the war? Edsall does not do much to address this question, save for saying that McCain and Giuliani get political coverage for attacking the way in which the Iraq War has been prosecuted by the Bush administration. But, still, this does not completely answer the above question.

Yet even getting beyond these points, which I believe are important, another related question remains: Will the majority of Americans who want to see an end in sight to the Iraq War continue to back the Democrats even if they do not make a serious effort to bring the war to a close? While I do harbor questions about whether, in fact, Congress has the capacity to force the President's hand on this matter -- I don't see the votes in the Senate to end the war outside of shutting down the entire Pentagon budget (but perhaps I am too pessimistic and cynical) -- I think that voters will be significantly more understanding of the Democratic position if the Congress at least tries to begin the redeployment of troops than if it simply passes the buck on to the next Congress and the next President. Americans, I believe and hope, understand that George W. Bush and his Republican allies are the ones keeping this war going indefinitely. At the same time, if the Democrats do not even try to make a difference in Iraq today it will be extremely difficuly for the Democratic presidential nominee and even downticket Democratic candidates to credibly argue that they will successfully bring a conclusion to American involvement in Iraq.

So perhaps Tom Edsall is right where he was previously wrong in gauging the electorate and Americans don't want to see Congress actually take substantive steps to change the United States' policy towards Iraq -- but I just can't follow the logic of the argument.

Tags: 2008, Democrats, Iraq, Republicans (all tags)

Comments

6 Comments

Re: Tom Edsall and the Enduring Myth of Republican

Touching on a point you made, I have a serious problem with Edsall's contention that rather than actually do something to stop the Iraq war via legislation, Democrats would be best served by honing their political rhetoric while explicitly not doing anything legislatively.

Essentially Edsall is saying, "Don't just do something - stand there!"

This thought, in my opinion, is indicative of the lowliest political commentary and the highest order of moral depravity in the face of a disastrous war.

--Matt Browner-Hamlin

by PhiloTBG 2007-03-22 12:35PM | 0 recs
Enduring Myth of Republican Strength on Iraq

I guess the question is this:  Democrats, at least progressive ones, were adamantly against Vietnam.  And the American people agreed with getting out.  However, the long term effect, the effect ten years down the road, was that Americans saw Democrats as weak on foreign policy.  Despite the fact that Americans strongly disapproved of Vietnam, the memory they held many years later was that Democrats were weak on defense issues.

So the challenge is, when the current Iraq issue goes away, and the painful memories fade, will Americans see us as the prudent party that extracted us from a bad war and saved the lives of thousands of troops or as the party that is instinctively against projection of American power.  

That's the challenge.  Somehow, despite our role in getting us out of the Vietnam quagmire, we came away stamped with the tag of the "weak on defense" party.  

Our position on Iraq is the right one, and we have now won an election because of it.  But we have to make sure that the narrative this time is not hijacked by the Reps again.  Last time, they managed to take the Vietnam mess they were largely responsible for (granted LBJ has much blame too), and turn it around a decade later to label us as anti-american and weak on defense.

by alhill 2007-03-22 12:37PM | 0 recs
Re: Enduring Myth of Republican Strength on Iraq

Why not just use this stupidity against them?  Why not paint every Republican like Johnson did in to Goldwater in the '64 campaign?  Why not just paint them as irresponsible idiots who bomb first and ask questions later, and cause ten times as many problems as they solve?  It shouldn't be all that hard.  They've done almost all of the work for themselves.

by Valatan 2007-03-22 12:51PM | 0 recs
Re: Tom Edsall and the Enduring Myth of Republican

Kind of amusing, one part of the Conservative movement attacks the Democrats for criticizing the Executive handling of the war without offering an alternate plan on Iraq, while another part cautions the Democrats shouldn't try to develop an alternate plan on Iraq. Hm.

Meanwhile:

As pro-surge Republicans completely on board with the substance of George W. Bush's Iraq policy, if not its implementation, both Giuliani and McCain -- as well as the Republican Party as a whole -- are susceptible to the same kind of overwhelming opposition as is the President.

You know, this is an interesting thing-- despite what you say, the opposition to the surge isn't rubbing off on Giuliani and McCain. It's rubbing off on McCain-- McCain alone.

Giuliani may support the Bush surge, and he's cheerleading for Gonzales, but Bush isn't rubbing off on him. The two somehow totally fail to get linked in the public mind. McCain meanwhile is just getting covered in Bush aura, and it seems clear that at least in part the sinking Bush approval ratings are bringing McCain down as well at the same time that Giuliani's are rising. Why do you suppose this is?

You know, all things considered, I'd wager that most people don't even know Giuliani supports Bush's surge.

by Silent sound 2007-03-22 01:42PM | 0 recs
Enduring Myth of Republican Strength

Jonathan,

Some quibbles with your piece today:

I am not among those "who have advocated that Democrats stick to investigating what went wrong in Iraq but stay away from actually trying to enact a better policy through legislation." My point was precisely that the Democrats do need to actually  enact a better policy through legislation, and that the party needs  "to demonstrate that they take seriously the threat of terrorism -- that whatever Iraq policy the party adopts, it is based on a recognition of this threat, and not on a helter-skelter rush to quiet demands from its influential anti-war wing." Such legislation, in my view - as I wrote -- needs to be "formulated transparently, and with a seriousness of purpose."  I wrote that the party also needs to put forward "an authoritative critique of the strategic failures of the White House and to make the public aware of  exactly how Bush lost the war." I do not believe, nor did I write, that - as you put it: Americans don't want to see Congress actually take substantive steps to change the United States' policy towards Iraq.

You ask, Will the majority of Americans who want to see an end in sight to the Iraq War continue to back the Democrats even if they do not make a serious effort to bring the war to a close? My difference with you is that I think a "serious effort" requires much more than what the Democrats have done so far.

I am arguing that without going through a difficult, thoughtful,  and deliberate public process of determining an anti-terrorist strategy, and a strategy for the war in the Mideast, it will be, as you say, "extremely difficult for the Democratic presidential nominee and even downticket Democratic candidates to credibly argue that they will successfully bring a conclusion to American involvement in Iraq."

Best, Tom Edsall

by tomedsall 2007-03-22 02:17PM | 0 recs
Re: Enduring Myth of Republican Strength

Thanks for the response. While I don't agree with you about the ability of McCain or Giuliani to get out of their support of President Bush's Iraq policy just by decrying its implementation, looking back at your Op-Ed through the prism of your email I do think you bring up some good points about the need for transparency (though I would note that transparency, for as important as it is, does not always make it easy or even possible for legislation on a controversial issue to move through the process in a fairly closely divided Congress).

by Jonathan Singer 2007-03-22 02:30PM | 0 recs

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