Exit Strategy in Search of a Party

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, November 23, 2005

George W. Bush has precious little to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, and nothing whatever when it comes to his adversaries. Beset at every turn, the president and his men have been pining for some patsies, some loudmouth liberals, some effete elitists whom they can demonize in the best traditions of the party of Richard Nixon.

Instead, look who's come after them in the past half-year: Cindy Sheehan, whose down-the-line dovishness is more than offset by her standing as the mother of a soldier killed in Bush's war; Patrick Fitzgerald, the straight-arrow boy prosecutor out of New York's Irish working class; and now John Murtha, the toughest and most decorated Marine in the House, who represents a Pennsylvania district straight out of "The Deer Hunter."

Not a Michael Moore in the bunch. Nothing there for the Roves and the Reeds and the Swift Boat slanderers to work with.

Not for lack of trying. For the past two weeks, with his control of Congress in jeopardy, the president has been saying that those who question his manipulation of intelligence in the run-up to the war are threatening our guys on the ground in Iraq. It's a time-honored tactic that goes back to Nixon: conflate criticism of the war with contempt for our troops and our nation.

Truth be told, Nixon had a lot to work with. The war in Vietnam was so bloody and unending, and the New Left so increasingly unhinged, that demonstrations turned violent and patriotism among many of the protesters seemed in short supply. The Yippies and the Panthers were all over the news. For an accomplished demagogue such as Nixon, who'd won his first elections by labeling his anticommunist liberal opponents as "commie symps," the rest was child's play. In short order he and his vice president were mushing together the measured antiwar sentiment of congressional Democrats with the boiling rage in the streets. Indeed, Nixon didn't so much argue the merits of staying the course in Vietnam -- nobody wanted to do that -- as inflame the sentiments of his "silent majority" against war protesters and the Democrats who opposed the war, too.

As political strategy, it was a smashing success, and the mere thought of it must today evoke a wrenching nostalgia in the political boiler room we call the White House. Where are the Yippies of yesteryear? Even as the American people turn decisively against the war in Iraq, war protests are few and well-behaved. Most congressional Democrats, and all their leaders, apparently have taken a vow of silence rather than offer an alternative plan for Iraq. And when one of them finally does pipe up, it's the unassailable Jack Murtha.

Oh, the Republicans gave it a shot. Initially, the White House compared Murtha to Moore, and some pipsqueak freshman congresswoman from Ohio called Murtha a coward, but these attacks embarrassed and angered so many Republicans that they quickly ground to a halt. For their part, the Democrats sang Murtha's praises but gave his proposal a wide berth.

But if the Democrats' silence is driving Rove batty, it's making their own supporters a little crazed as well. The Democratic base clearly supports withdrawing the troops; in Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco district, that position probably commands nearly unanimous support. Meanwhile, the case for continuing our involvement grows increasingly absurd: In its latest iteration, we are there to prevent war between Shiite and Sunni, which looms, of course, only because we invaded Iraq in the first place. We stay to mitigate the consequence of our coming. We've had wars in which our soldiers died for better causes than that.

Still, the Democrats stay largely mute. Some believe that the nonexistence of an alternative policy that will actually make Iraq a more sustainable nation means we have to stay there. More believe that while the administration has made a hash of its war in Iraq, it will wage a relentless and quite possibly more effective war on the Democrats domestically should they call for bringing the troops home. Judging by its performance in the Murtha matter, the Bush White House is aching for the opportunity.

But it's not 1969. There is no silent majority to be rallied in support of the war, just a frustrated minority. The streets are quiet. Demonstrators are decorous. The audience for Dick Cheney's hatchet jobs has dwindled. The president's credibility is reaching Nixonian depths. The Democrats have been pushed to the brink of opposing the war, but there -- on the brink -- they totter.

And so, on the most urgent question confronting America today, we have reached an absurd and exquisite equipoise. The Republicans cannot credibly defend the war; the Democrats cannot quite bring themselves to call for its end. And the war goes on.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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