Tom Edsall and the Enduring Myth of Republican Strength on Iraq
by Jonathan Singer, Thu Mar 22, 2007 at 12:08:53 PM EDT
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.