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Will Iraq sink the GOP?

Unhappiness with the war cost Republicans in '06, and now they must face it again in '08.

September 16, 2007|Ronald Brownstein

Next summer, less than four months before the November election, there will still be about as many American troops fighting in Iraq as there were on the day of the Democratic sweep in the November 2006 election. That is the most politically significant fact that emerged from last week's congressional hearings with Gen. David H. Petraeus. The general said that from now until at least the middle of July, he plans to maintain about as many troops in Iraq as were in the field in the fall of 2006 -- about 140,000 in all. President Bush endorsed that strategy in his speech Thursday.

Those plans virtually assure that Iraq will dominate the presidential and congressional campaigns and divide the parties as much in 2008 as it did in 2006 and 2004.

"What this guarantees is that Iraq is still going to be as front and center in the general election as it is today," said Gregory Craig, a former State Department director of policy planning for President Clinton who now advises Sen. Barack Obama. "If there are 130,000 or more American troops in Iraq next summer, there are going to be comparable casualties and uncertainty about the future. So it is going to loom large at the expense of every other issue."

The scenario Petraeus presented to Congress could create some strains for Democrats. Unless Congress can force Bush to accelerate troop withdrawals, which seems less likely than ever after last week's hearings, antiwar activists will grow increasingly frustrated with party leaders. That could pressure Democrats toward positions that alienate general-election swing voters disillusioned about the war but not ready to entirely abandon Iraq (though Obama avoided that trap in his detailed Iraq speech last week).

But the Petraeus testimony clearly creates the greatest political risks, and most difficult choices, for Republicans. GOP presidential and congressional candidates face the dangerous choice of either defending the president or distancing themselves from him as he pursues a largely "stay the course" strategy almost two full years after impatience with the war helped Democrats seize control of the House and Senate. Petraeus repeatedly refused to commit to further troop reductions after the end of the "surge" in July, and while acknowledging that the American mission will eventually shift from front-line combat toward support and training of Iraqi forces, he refused to establish any schedule for such a change. With those positions, Petraeus and Bush provided powerful talking points for Democrats arguing that the only way to change direction in Iraq is to defeat Republicans in next year's election. "It is pretty clear this president isn't going to change course unless he is forced to," said Democratic Rep. Tom Allen, who is already marshaling that argument in his campaign against Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

On the morning after the disastrous 2006 election, not many Republicans could have imagined that they would be facing the voters in 2008 with roughly the same number of troops in Iraq shouldering roughly the same responsibilities. "We were certainly hopeful that we wouldn't be," said Tom Ingram, the longtime chief strategist for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who faces reelection next year. "And I don't think we expected to be."

Few Republicans doubt that maintaining such a large troop deployment to Iraq next year will strain America's patience. But Republicans optimistic about the war believe two other factors could blunt that discontent. One is that the number of troops will still be declining next year, even if they only revert to the pre-surge level. And the administration, without committing to any specifics, has left open the possibility of additional reductions later in 2008. Bush and Petraeus said that next March they will consider further withdrawals that would begin after July, and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said Friday that he envisions even deeper reductions by the end of next year than the general and the president had seemed to imply.

The other mitigating factor would be further progress in securing Iraq. Pete Wehner, until recently the White House director of strategic initiatives, says that if the sustained deployment produces continued security gains, Republicans will benefit. "The only way this can turn out to be an issue that doesn't deeply injure the Republican Party is if Iraq is a calmer country and you have legitimate, demonstrable progress," said Wehner, now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank.

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