WASHINGTON -- "If they weren't going to vote us out for going into Iraq, then they're not going to vote us out for staying in." It's hot now in Washington, even in the shade, but one senior Hill staffer, diagnosing the mood of Congressional Republicans, isn't sweating. Nobody is, as far as Iraq is concerned. Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), whose office is flanked with photos of America's fallen in the war on terror, has co-sponsored a resolution designed to do precisely what his colleagues on the Hill decline to do -- wrest the initiative from the administration on Iraq policy. The fanfare in the press over this resolution, and what it might signify, is characterized by a crossing of fingers and biting of lips as anxiously enthusiastic as the GOP's reaction is languorous.
Anxiety? "I'm just not seeing it," the staffer says. And enthusiasm? Hardly. "What is he asking for? Pick a date on the calendar? Throw a dart?" The rhetorical dart-throwing is not with plastic-tippers. The signal a timetable for Iraq withdrawal would send, as far as the House is concerned, "is that America is in retreat, out of its front lines."
The Boston Globe reports that public support for the war is "plummeting," and "a growing number of members of Congress from both parties are reevaluating the reasons for invasion and demanding" a plan from the White House. But the view from the Hill reveals that even some Democrats aren't comfortable with setting pullout deadlines. Rep. Jones, as fate would have it, isn't either -- according to his website, where Eastern Carolinians can learn that their Congressman is actually "NOT in favor of any immediate withdrawal," nor does he support "setting an end date at which time all troops must be out of Iraq."
"What I do support," the Jones release adds, "is a public discussion of our goals and the future of our military involvement in that country. The resolution I am co-sponsoring will do no more than call on the President to set a plan and a date to begin reducing the number of troops we have in Iraq." Indeed. But House Republicans -- leadership and membership alike -- have the distinct impression that "cutting and running" is exactly what Jones is after.
"If he wanted to get out a long time from now," the staffer asks, "why be so vigilant about it already?"
ONE ANSWER IS THAT public support for the war has fallen, that the '06 and '08 elections are only getting closer, and that vulnerable members and high-profile hopefuls might want to distance themselves from an open-ended commitment to sign blank checks for an administration not interested in the confines of calendars.
Not so fast. The House GOP doesn't feel vulnerable -- in fact, it's confident that the voting public has already accepted a strategy of sequential conditions for withdrawal in Iraq, set to goals on the ground, not dates on the page. There's a memo (another one; another British one) bandying about an "early 2006" drawdown date, yet the dates are not firm, and dependent upon the reality on the ground. It's all nebulous enough to seem far off. But could it be that the '06 elections are too far off for Iraq to quite register, and that election-year jitters will flush out the timetablists? Social Security proves it isn't so. On that issue, members are shaking in their boots. "If we do nothing we'll look stupid, if we do the wrong thing we'll look stupid" -- the danger of punishment at the polls on Social Security is, today, as real as Fallujah to Congress. If Republicans in the House were afraid of Iraq, they'd be spooked already.
Crazy? Some might think. But rarely are those locked into the two-year election cycle cavalier or wrong about what might nail them on election day. Social Security may push Iraq worries into the background, but nervousness is contagious and skepticism short of criticism a stock in trade for hedging politicians looking to reflect the ambivalence of voters who could send them home in November and keep them there.
Walter Jones -- whatever he wants -- is a respected man on the Hill (and the father of Freedom Fries). But his trumpet's call on Iraq throws a faint echo down the corridors of the Cannon, Rayburn, and Longworth House Office Buildings. Ringing much louder in the ears of members are the screaming headlines of July 7th's bombings in London. The enemy Congress still sees in action operates in Iraq, too, and the collective understanding that setting a deadline means telling the terrorists "just wait long enough" appears firm as a handshake. Mesopotamia Nervosa is a disease that has not made it onto the Republican side of the aisle.
WHAT ALL OF THIS MEANS for the GOP between now and the day that Hillary Clinton either keeps or loses her Senate seat is that everything that America does in Iraq will happen because the Administration wants it to. Congress won't take the lead while Bush is in office, and in the runup to '06, it will be sure to deliberately avoid the use of any oversight. Second-guessing the President or the Pentagon on this $5 billion or that $5 billion looks "un-American," as the staffer characterizes the impression, but it also looks simply contentious. And is. And with Social Security lurking in the corners, it behooves the party to act like as much of a unit as possible, wherever it's possible. After another year and a half of pay-as-you-go and private accounts, it may be every man for himself.
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