Will Iraq sink the GOP?

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.

But other Republicans are dubious that any security gains in Iraq will be sufficient to fundamentally reverse the negative public verdict on the war -- especially if they are unaccompanied by signs of the political reconciliation there that all sides consider the prerequisite for long-term stability. Most recent polls have found a modest but measurable increase in public optimism about the war’s direction, and that trend could advance further after Petraeus’ high-profile presentation. But the overall numbers remain dismal, and the unremitting tide of civilian and military casualties in Iraq could erode any White House gains in the months ahead.

That may help explain why a surprising number of Republican elected officials and operatives openly challenged the path Petraeus and Bush outlined. “This has been a good week for the administration, but the fundamentals haven’t changed, which is that a lot of voters -- most importantly, independent voters -- aren’t happy with the fact that we’ve got American troops dying there, and they can’t quite figure out what they are there for,” said Glen Bolger, a prominent GOP pollster who specializes in Senate races. “It is going to be extraordinarily advantageous for the Democrats and extraordinarily difficult for the Republicans . . . to still have significant numbers of troops there [during the election].”

Similar, if more cautiously phrased, attitudes were evident last week from Republican senators facing reelection in 2008, such as Alexander, Collins, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Gordon Smith of Oregon and even Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina. All questioned Petraeus’ plan and urged the administration to consider either more rapid withdrawals or a shift in the mission of American forces away from front-line combat.

That contrasted with the leading 2008 Republican presidential contenders, each of whom quickly embraced Petraeus’ recommendations. With the core Republican voters who dominate the nomination process still broadly supporting the war, the presidential candidates have less flexibility than senators to propose a reduction in the American combat presence. “I think they are all locked into accepting Petraeus’ assessment of when that can occur,” said a senior advisor to a leading GOP presidential contender.

That assessment points to the most profound effect of Bush’s decision last week. Even if some House and Senate Republicans try to establish more autonomous positions, the president has enlisted his party into a political gamble of enormous magnitude. Bush, with his decision to maintain so many troops in Iraq through the final months of his presidency, has virtually dared voters to view the next election as a referendum on the war. Even more than in 2006, the Republicans’ fate in 2008 may be held hostage to conditions on the ground in Iraq. “They bet on the surge,” Craig said in an assessment few Republicans dispute, “and now they are doubling down.”


Ronald Brownstein is The Times’ national affairs columnist.