Republican Wedge Issues, 2006 Edition

By Harold Meyerson
Saturday, February 4, 2006

Old lies die hard. We grow inured to the administration's howlers in defense of its Iraq policy, so much so that the preposterous case the president made in his State of the Union address for our continued presence in Iraq went almost unnoticed. But he actually said this:

"A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison, [and] would put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country. . . ."

Is there one person anywhere inside the administration who really believes that Abu Musab Zarqawi's murderous band of outsiders would emerge as rulers over the vastly larger and very well-armed Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish legions if we pulled out? The same band of outsiders that tried to stop the Sunnis from voting in December's parliamentary election and held their turnout down, in some provinces, to a mere 90 percent?

We've heard this one before. Before the war, the president told us that Saddam Hussein was an ally and co-conspirator of Osama bin Laden -- all evidence to the contrary. Now bin Laden is poised to take over the country if we leave -- all evidence to the contrary.

I don't agree with it, but there is a serious case to be made for our continuing presence in Iraq as a buffer and negotiator between the Shiite and Sunni populations. But George W. Bush said absolutely nothing on Tuesday night about the real tensions that threaten to pull Iraq apart and our role in trying to suppress them. Nearly three years after he took us to war, the president's justification for our intervention is nonsensical by every measure save one: the political. The only issue on which even 50 percent of Americans say Bush is doing a good job is fighting terrorism, so the war in Iraq must be conflated with the war on bin Laden.

By the measure of his past speeches, however, it was a perfunctory case that the president made for the war on Tuesday; indeed, we have to go back in time to BC (Before Clinton) to find a State of the Union as spiritless and themeless as this one. As conservatives promptly noted, what was missing from the text was the laissez-faire zeal that had previously suffused Bush domestic policy. Bush didn't even make much of a case for his health savings accounts, to which he devoted just a single sentence. Time was when he would have said that Americans should handle their own accounts. But Bush said that last year when he sought to privatize Social Security, and his countrymen recoiled.

Indeed, the only case for which Bush summoned his signature cockiness was his argument for warrantless surveillance. "If there are people inside our country who are talkin' with al Qaeda," he said (and the telltale dropped "g" shows that Bush means business), "we want to know about it, because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again." This is, as Karl Rove made clear the week before, the one issue on which the president intends to hit the Democrats again and again. For a president given to attack lines, it was really the only attack line in his entire speech -- a point surely not lost on the increasingly anxious Republican lawmakers in the room.

For, other than Bush's assertion that he's tougher than the Democrats in the post-Sept. 11 world, his speech provided precisely nothing on which Republican members of Congress can campaign this year. Switchgrass? Opposition to hybrid human-animal cloning? (Republicans Oppose "Island of Dr. Moreau"!) Which means they have to come before the voters running on what -- the war? The economy? Health care? Anybody out there got a theme that won't immediately backfire?

I fear they think they do. As their poll numbers continue to decline, I suspect an increasing number of embattled Republican incumbents will campaign for the criminalization of the 11 million undocumented workers in the United States.

This will cause a rift with those low-wage employers that are a mainstay of Republican finance (agribusiness and restaurants among them), and won't overjoy party strategists such as Rove, who fear the long-term effect of such campaigns on Latino voting. After all, then-California Gov. Pete Wilson's support for Proposition 187 in 1994, which denied public services to undocumented immigrants and their children, cost the party so much Latino support that the Republicans have been marginalized in that state ever since. But at the time, it also enabled Wilson, who had been trailing in the polls, to win reelection. A war on immigrants might backfire in the long run, but these guys are on the ballot in November.

Warrantless wiretapping and immigrant bashing as the Republican wedge issues of '06? Well, what else can they run on?

Their competence? Their ethics?

meyersonh@washpost.com

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