Political Hay

The Quagmire Quagmire

With the 2006 elections looming, dumbfounded Democrats are having trouble responding to Iraq.

By 8.31.05

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A syndicated cartoon that appeared in the New York Times earlier this month depicts a Republican elephant protesting outside of President Bush's ranch in Crawford. The elephant is holding a sign that reads, "End The War (Before The '06 Elections)."

History may inevitably repeat itself, but it isn't supposed to start showing reruns so quickly.

Not even a year has passed since liberals failed to exploit opposition to the Iraq war to defeat President Bush, but that isn't stopping them from believing that resurrecting the same strategy will bring them electoral success in the 2006 congressional elections. President Bush's declining poll numbers, enthusiasm for Cindy Sheehan's protest in Crawford, and the strong showing of anti-war candidate Paul Hackett in a special Ohio election earlier this month have all combined to give liberals hope.

"We have delivered a lesson -- the Fighting Dems will win the day," read one post on the influential liberal blog Daily Kos, after Hackett's narrow defeat in a heavily Republican district. "On to 2006, when we take back the Congress."

The mainstream media thinks that Republicans are already quaking in their boots. "Bad Iraq War News Worries Some in G.O.P. on '06 Vote," was the headline of one recent New York Times story.

But in reality, the political climate is eerily close to what it was at this time in 2003. Then, as now, the media were publishing stories that showed Americans' growing pessimism about Iraq.

An Associated Press story from August 23, 2003, opens:

With public confidence declining in President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, nearly 70 percent of Americans feel the United States will be bogged down in the country for years without achieving its goals, a poll finds.

Around this time of year in 2003, dark horse candidate Howard Dean was capitalizing on anti-war sentiment and surging in polls for the Democratic nomination. Sen. John Kerry was desperate to shore up his reputation with anti-war Democrats and in October he cast his now infamous vote against $87 billion of military funding for Iraq. The vote, and Kerry's subsequent attempts to justify it, crystallized President Bush's central argument that Kerry changed his views with the wind and couldn't be trusted as a wartime leader.

War is unpredictable, and if you eliminate those who are either ardently for the Iraq war or dead against it, you are left with a large chunk of Americans who change their mind based on how things seem to be going.

This month, an uptick of violence in Iraq, uncertainty over the status of its constitution, and wall-to-wall coverage of Cindy Sheehan's protest all contributed to a negative impression of the war. But this impression could quickly change.

The Sheehan story is what you get when bored journalists are forced to spend a month in Texas without any news to report. Sheehan coverage has already started to wane as the media move from one of their favorite spectacles -- protests -- to another, storms. This week, images of the grieving Sheehan have been replaced by images of Hurricane Katrina toppling trees as if they were matchsticks.

The next few months hold great promise for Iraq. If Iraqis approve their new constitution in October and hold successful parliamentary elections in December, Americans could suddenly feel pretty good about the war going into the new year.

SOME MAY POINT TO President Bush's record low approval ratings and argue that Americans are much more pessimistic about Iraq than they ever have been, and therefore it is unfair to draw parallels to other periods of waning support. But certain fundamentals still hold.

When asked in an Associated Press/Ipsos poll taken last week whether the United States should "keep troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized" or "bring its troops home from Iraq immediately," 60 percent of Americans responded that we should keep the troops in Iraq, compared to 37 percent that favored bringing the troops home.

Democrats are aware of this reality, which is why members of the party have not joined Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis) in his call to withdraw troops from Iraq by the end of 2006.

Any discussion of Iraq puts Democrats in a bind because they must criticize the war to energize their base while avoiding talk of complete withdrawal to reassure moderates. It isn't a surprise that once they move beyond bashing President Bush for bungling the war, Democratic leaders have a tough time articulating their own strategy for Iraq.

This is not to say that Republicans will coast to victory in 2006, because congressional elections tend to be decided on local and domestic issues. In these areas, the GOP's abysmal spending record, among other failures, certainly makes them vulnerable.

But if Democrats turn the 2006 elections into a referendum on Iraq, they will soon find themselves in what some might call a quagmire.

Philip Klein writes from New York.

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About the Author

Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein