Turning the Tables

By Charlie Cook

June 5, 2007

With the recent disclosure that Pentagon war planners are working on options to begin withdrawing U.S. troops next year, we got a glimpse of America's Iraq policy of the not-too-distant future.

Revealed even before all of the troops in President Bush's surge have reached Iraq, a drawdown is not the White House's preferred plan. But the serious internal discussions of a withdrawal are the first sign that the administration recognizes just how much support for the war has waned among congressional Republicans and the general public.

When you hear Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., saying, "The handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall, and I expect the president to lead it," you pretty much know which way this drama is headed. McConnell's remarks came after 11 House Republican leaders trekked to the White House to signal their concern about U.S. involvement in Iraq and to give their party's leader a dose of tough love.

Although House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, reportedly didn't say much during the session with Bush, the fact that he was part of the group speaks volumes. These were serious legislators who find the administration's current Iraq policy fundamentally flawed and worry that another electoral disaster is in the making.

Politically speaking, congressional Republicans have long had the most to gain from getting some resolution to the Iraq war before November 2008. While scandal, arrogance, complacency, and profligacy cost Republicans about 15 House seats and three or four in the Senate last fall, a dramatic worsening of the situation in Iraq cost them another 15 House seats, another two or three Senate seats -- and control of both chambers.

The political climate was bad for Republicans heading into Labor Day last year, but it was much worse by October. And the Mark Foley page scandal wasn't the only reason for that deterioration.

For congressional Republicans to have a realistic chance of breaking even or even gaining a bit of ground next year, the situation in Iraq will have to fundamentally change. Independent voters, who backed Democrats by an 18-point margin in 2006, aren't showing any sign of warming to Bush, his policies, or his party.

Since Democrats took control of Capitol Hill, Congress's job-approval rating has climbed a half-dozen points, although it remains low at 35 percent. Bush's approval rating, meanwhile, has dropped to an average of 32 percent, according to Pollster.com. That is not the lowest approval rating any president has received, but it is getting within shouting distance of a record.

If Republicans are to have any success next year, they must move the issue agenda away from Iraq and make the election about what the Democrats have or haven't done since taking charge of the House and Senate. If the election hinges on Iraq and forces Republicans to defend Bush administration policies, the president's job-approval rating provides a clue as to the outcome. The GOP has to turn the tables. And only movement toward a resolution in Iraq can provide that chance.

The most liberal 5 percent or so of Democrats are livid about congressional Democrats' decision to throw in the towel on their effort to attach timetables to the Iraq supplemental spending bill. But when a party's most ideological bloc is happy for very long, that's generally a sign that the party is taking an extreme position and is in danger of alienating most other voters. By giving in when they did, congressional Democrats avoided the charge of yanking support for American troops -- a tag that Republicans desperately wanted to stick them with.

And by keeping up the pressure for making plans to get out of Iraq, Hill Democrats succeeded in raising the anxiety level among GOP members to the point where they are the ones forcing Bush's hand.

By Charlie Cook

June 5, 2007