Will Iraq Sink the GOP?
Brownstein, Ronald, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Next summer, less than four months before the November election, there still will be about as many American troops fighting in Iraq as there were on the day of the Democrats' sweep in the November 2006 election.
That is the most politically significant fact that emerged from this month'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 140,000 in the field. President Bush endorsed that strategy in his Sept. 13 speech.
"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 U.S. 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 -- anti-war 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.
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 so-called "surge" in July, and while acknowledging that the American mission eventually will shift from frontline 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.
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. …