The Iraq war is the most immediate foreign policy problem besetting the Bush administration. But as a political issue, the White House and top Republican strategists have concluded that the war is a clear winner.
GOP officials intend to base the midterm election campaign partly on talking up the war, using speeches and events to contrast President Bush’s policies against growing disagreement among leading Democrats over whether to support immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Bush’s surprise visit to Baghdad on Tuesday -- and a lengthy Rose Garden news conference Wednesday in which he extolled the new Iraqi government -- mark the beginning of a planned months-long effort, which got an unexpected boost with the death last week of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“There’s an interesting debate in the Democrat Party about how quick to pull out of Iraq,” Bush said in the news conference Wednesday. “Pulling out of Iraq before we accomplish the mission will make the world a more dangerous place. It’s bad policy. I know it may sound good politically.”
Bush’s comments underscored the renewed effort by the White House to regain its footing in the domestic debate over the war. It also reflected Republican strategists’ calculation that although public approval of both the president and the continuing U.S. presence in Iraq have soured, Democratic disarray could give the GOP an advantage in November on an issue that once looked to be a major weakness for Republicans.
Republican lawmakers and strategists said Wednesday that the campaign to frame the Iraq debate would play out over the summer and into the fall, focusing on battleground congressional districts and states with competitive Senate races.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman has already sent an e-mail to 15 million supporters asking them to reject “craven, politically motivated demands for instant withdrawal.”
Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and a key White House advisor, conceded Wednesday that protracted violence in Iraq and voters’ rising doubts “have had a dampening effect on the president’s approval rating.” But, he said, given a choice between Democrats’ uncertainty and Bush’s firmness, “that choice favors us.”
The Democrats’ divisions over Iraq came into clearer focus Tuesday, the same day Bush flew to Baghdad.
Addressing a conference of liberal activists in Washington, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) drew boos from some in the audience when she stopped short of calling for a deadline for withdrawing troops.
She was followed by Bush’s 2004 challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who earned rousing applause from the same crowd for comparing the conflict in Iraq to Vietnam and calling for a troop withdrawal this year. He called it a “right and an obligation for Americans to stand up to a president who is wrong today.”
Republicans in both chambers of Congress have scheduled events and votes on Iraq all week -- the Senate as it debates a defense spending bill, the House as it holds a full day of debate today on a resolution on Iraq.
Officially, the House debate will be the first time the chamber has argued the pros and cons of the invasion and occupation of Iraq since the war began more than three years ago. But Democrats, who have repeatedly called for debate on the war, have denounced this week’s events as little more than a political trap to embarrass them and force acquiescence with the administration’s policy.
The resolution expresses support for U.S. troops and a commitment to combat terrorism. It also unequivocally asserts that the conflict in Iraq is part of a “global war on terror” -- an assertion that Democrats and some Republicans dispute.
Bush hammered that assertion Wednesday. “If we fail in Iraq, it’s going to embolden Al Qaeda types,” he said. “It will weaken the resolve of moderate nations to stand up to the Islamic fascists. It will cause people to lose their nerve and not stay strong.”
Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) complained Wednesday that House leaders were not going to permit Democrats to offer amendments to the resolution, forcing them into a position of either voting against supporting the troops or for the Republican formulation of the war.
“Our hands are tied -- literally -- on the floor of the people’s House,” Abercrombie said at a news conference, his hands tied together with yellow rope to symbolize his frustration. “Do not put us through the farce and the fraud of a pseudo-debate.”
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was unsympathetic.
“That is not a ‘gotcha.’ They have a decision to make. That is what we get elected to do,” Boehner said.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) said many Democrats might vote “present” on the resolution, rather than yes or no. And during the debate, he said, they would emphasize their points of agreement -- that Republicans are “rubber-stamping” the administration’s policy.
“It would be better if it was a unified message, but the reality is the country isn’t unified about Iraq -- Republicans aren’t unified about Iraq. We can’t fret too much about the fact that our caucus is very diverse and people are coming at it from many different directions,” Schiff said.
In the Senate, leading Democrats have met several times to try to forestall an effort by Kerry to introduce an amendment to the defense bill that would require troop withdrawals to begin this year. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been trying to persuade proponents and opponents of withdrawal to agree on a formulation. One option has been an amendment calling for the administration to “responsibly redeploy” U.S. forces “starting this year.”
Reid spokesman Jim Manley denied that Democratic divisions on the war have hurt the party. “We are not going to shy away from this debate,” he said. “The American people are demanding accountability.”
Senate Democrats met again late in the day to develop a consensus position on the question of withdrawal.
“It would be helpful to show the American people a position that all Democrats can agree to, but I doubt that that’s possible,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
One Republican, Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, described the Democrats’ disarray as an unlikely gift at a time when events in Iraq and elsewhere might otherwise paint a dismal political picture for Republicans.
“That’s what we’re going to bet the ranch on,” Foley said Wednesday. “We’re not doing everything perfectly, but we certainly have help from the other side. They’re just not taking advantage of some strategic opportunities presented to them.”
Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.