Sunday, June 18, 2006

Rove’s Trap: The president's strategist is politicizing the Iraq war for partisan political gain. Will the Dems figure out how to fight back?

Rove’s Trap
The president's strategist is politicizing the Iraq war for partisan political gain. Will the Dems figure out how to fight back?
By Eleanor Clift

June 16, 2006 - Our towel-snapping president is feeling better. He joked and jostled with the press for almost an hour, high on adrenalin after his secret trip to Baghdad. Thanks to skilled lawyering, his adviser Karl Rove is back in business framing the November election as a referendum on cut-and-run Democrats.

Rove is following a time-honored tactic: hang a lantern on your problem. Iraq is George Bush’s biggest problem, ergo Rove’s strategy: showcase the war, frame the choice between victory and defeatism, put the Democrats on the defensive. Moments after learning he had escaped indictment in the CIA leak investigation case, Rove told New Hampshire Republicans that Democratic critics of the war like John Kerry and John Murtha “give the green light to go to war, but when it gets tough, they fall back on that party’s old platform of cutting and running. They may be with you for the first few bullets, but they won’t be there for the last tough battles.”

It’s appalling that an administration led by chicken hawks dares to build an election strategy based on lecturing combat veterans, but it is devilishly clever, and it might work. The Swift Boat veterans destroyed Kerry in 2004; and in 2002, losing three limbs in Vietnam didn’t save Georgia Sen. Max Cleland from attacks on his patriotism. Rove told the GOP faithful that if the Democrats were in charge, Iraq would fall to the terrorists and Zarqawi would not be dead. As offensive as those words are, Rove is doing his job, which is sliming the Democrats so Republicans can cling to power on Capitol Hill. He is politicizing the war for partisan political gain, a strategy that could backfire if events on the ground in Iraq deteriorate.

“They’re risk-takers,” says Matt Bennett of Third Way, a Democratic centrist group. “Did they risk politicizing 9/11 by holding their convention in New York? Yes, and the risk paid off. It’s very Rovean; they’re trying to turn a weakness into a strength.” Another Democratic strategist noted the irony that after four years of no accountability on the mistakes made in prosecuting the Iraq war, the administration was hanging Democrats out to dry. This strategist called it “reverse accountability—shift the blame to those not in charge.”

Bush’s quick trip to Iraq was a symbolic handing over of power. In both message and visuals, he was saying to the new government, it’s your problem. He wrapped it in rhetoric about the U.S. commitment, but it’s clear that this is a last-chance government. If they can’t do it with American help, it’s over. Democrats fighting among themselves play into the GOP’s strategy, highlighting the opposition party’s inability to offer a credible alternative—or as Bush said in his Rose Garden press conference, “There’s an interesting debate in the Democratic Party about how quick to pull out of Iraq.” House Republicans staged a debate for the cameras on a meaningless resolution declaring the “United States will prevail in the Global War on Terror and the struggle to protect freedom from the terrorist adversary.” The idea is to corner the Democrats into taking a stand that could hurt them in November. A yes vote angers the Democratic base, which is increasingly antiwar; a no vote invites charges of cut and run.

Kerry is two years late in declaring he was wrong to vote for the war, and now he’s playing to the party’s antiwar base in the hope of resurrecting his presidential campaign. The GOP is gleefully framing Kerry’s amendment to bring the troops home by the end of this year as a choice between victory and a treasonous running away. None of the other big-name Democrats want to get behind Kerry’s plan because they’re also running for president, and they’ve got their own half-baked ideas. An honest reckoning on Iraq means choosing among bad and less-bad options, which don’t stir voter enthusiasm. There are no good options. People of good will can disagree about what to do next, but no one, except for the most blinkered Bush partisans, think Iraq is anything but a disaster.

There will be an antiwar candidate in ’08, probably Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold, and he’ll get a lot of support and cause real problems for the front runner, whoever it is. Feingold won’t be put on the ticket, but he could well throw the election to the Republicans if the Democrats don’t figure out how to deal with the antiwar sentiment in the party. Ignoring the antiwar left is the equivalent of a Republican disregarding the religious right in the primaries. Maybe we won’t have the Iraq war to kick around by ’08, but the more likely scenario is that Bush will leave enough troops there to keep it from dissolving into an uncontrolled civil war. Rove is setting the same trap for Democrats that worked so well in ’04 and ’02. There’s no surprise here; the only surprise will be if the Democrats figure out how to fight back.