Six months ago, pundits were predicting that congressional Republicans’ patience with the Iraq war had run out. Led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, they were going to storm the Oval Office, deliver the news that no more funding would be forthcoming and thereby save their skins in the 2008 elections. Things have a funny way of working out.
General Petraeus did not just win the rhetorical argument in September because MoveOn.org overplayed its hand. He won because facts on the ground had shifted, Democrats who returned reported significant progress and commentators not known for their support of the war concurred that the surge was working. President Bush got his breathing room.
Fast forward a few months. Now the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post are in agreement. The Democrats’ unseemly denial of reality and refusal to recognize the surge has indeed worked has become painfully obvious. Popular opinion on the war has turned and continued funding seems assured. While the future of Iraq’s political stability remains in doubt, those who supported the surge are no longer the ones with egg on their faces.
The political ramifications of the last six months are now being played out in the presidential primaries. On the Democratic side Barack Obama’s claim to fame — opposing the war from the get-go — and determination to withdraw troops immediately may, to some segment of the Democratic electorate, seem oddly out of sync. His anti-war credentials, while still overwhelmingly lauded by the Democratic base, pack a less powerful punch now that the Iraq war has disappeared from the front pages.
ON THE REPUBLICAN side the results are starker. John McCain has revived his political fortunes based in large part on his role in criticizing Donald Rumsfeld and supporting a revision of the Iraq strategy when other Republicans were “looking at their shoes.” This offers more than “I told you so” brownie points for him. It clearly places his commander-in-chief credentials above all rivals and cements his image as the “straight talker” who does not trim his views to popular opinion. He has been able to utilize his support of the surge to advance the notion that despite his lifetime in Washington he is indeed the most effect “agent of change” in the race.
The success of the surge has also complicated the plans of McCain’s opponents. While Romney tried to leave wiggle room if the surge did not work as planned (it only was “apparently” succeeding he told a debate audience in New Hampshire in September), his less-than-full-throated support looks less wise in retrospect. Coupled with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the surge and McCain’s support for it has arguably made Romney’s CEO experience looks less relevant than McCain’s. McCain can credibly argue that it is not simply enough for a president to collect information and assemble advisers (who often disagree).
To look ahead to the general election, the surge may also have changed the landscape for the Republicans as a whole. If progress continues, the GOP will not face searing headlines and escalating body counts. The traditional image of the GOP as the more responsible and less skittish party in national security may be restored somewhat and the Democrats’ willingness to “cut and run” again becomes a viable campaign issue.
So the lessons of the surge are familiar ones, but ones repeatedly forgotten by politicians anxious to seek safer ground in any controversy. Short-term political gain does not always translate into long-term electoral success. The public in the end will reward political courage — in part because it is so rare.
And once again, political prognostication is a fool’s game given the inability to foresee events weeks, let alone months, down the road. When in doubt and when all else fails, Republicans might be advised to do the right thing — be resolute against American foes, trust reliable advice from our military, and ignore the howls from the media and liberal establishment.
In the end, it just might pay off.