Slowly Sidling To Iraq's Exit

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

By Election Day, how many Republican candidates will have come out against the Iraq war or distanced themselves from the administration's policies?

August 2006 will be remembered as a watershed in the politics of Iraq. It is the month in which a majority of Americans told pollsters that the struggle for Iraq was not connected to the larger war on terrorism. They thus renounced a proposition the administration has pushed relentlessly since it began making the case four years ago to invade Iraq.

That poll finding, from a New York Times-CBS News survey, came to life on the campaign trail when Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), one of the most articulate supporters of the war, announced last Thursday that he favored a time frame for withdrawing troops.

Shays is in a tough race for reelection against Democrat Diane Farrell, who has made opposition to the war a central issue. After his 14th trip to Iraq, Shays announced that "the only way we are able to encourage some political will on the part of Iraqis is to have a timeline for troop withdrawal."

In July Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) returned from Iraq with an equally grim view. Americans, he said, lacked "strategic control" of the streets of Baghdad, and he called for a "limited troop withdrawal -- to send the Iraqis a message." Just the month before, Gutknecht had told his fellow House members that "now is not the time to go wobbly" on Iraq.

Nearly as significant as the new support for troop withdrawals is the effort of many Republicans to criticize President Bush without taking a firm stand on when the troops should come home.

Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), facing a challenge from Democrat Patrick Murphy, an Iraq war veteran, took a page from former president Bill Clinton's playbook by triangulating between Murphy and the president. A Fitzpatrick mailing sent earlier this month said that Fitzpatrick favored a "better, smarter plan in Iraq" that "says NO to both extremes: No to President Bush's 'stay the course' strategy . . . and no to Patrick Murphy's 'cut and run' approach."

Notice: A Republican is suggesting that Bush's Iraq policy is extreme. That would not have happened in 2004.

Other Republicans have taken their distance from the president more subtly. In May Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), facing a difficult rematch against Democrat Lois Murphy, called on Congress "to step up and be more assertive in assessing the level of progress" in Iraq. He added: "The Iraqi government needs to know that American patience and support are not blank checks that Iraqi politicians can cash with American lives and tax dollars."

And judging from the Web sites of other Republicans in close races, many would prefer to make the Iraq issue disappear between now and November.

Consider the campaign Web site of Rep. Mike Sodrel (R-Ind.), who faces a serious opponent in Democrat Baron Hill, a former House member. On the "Issues" portion of his campaign site, Sodrel is proud to describe his stands on border security, gas prices and energy, tax relief, creating jobs, veterans, health care, supporting small business, and agriculture. As of yesterday evening, there was no entry for Iraq on the site, though he does discuss the issue on his House Web site.

All this Republican uneasiness underscores the importance of the New York Times-CBS poll showing that 51 percent of those surveyed found no link between the war in Iraq and the broader war on terrorism, an increase of 10 percentage points since June. A majority now rejects the administration's core foreign policy argument.

The cracking of Republican solidarity in support of Bush on Iraq has short-term implications for November's elections and long-term implications for whether the administration can sustain its policies.

With a growing number of Republicans now echoing Democratic criticisms of the war, Republican strategists will have a harder time making the election a referendum on whether the United States should "cut and run" from Iraq, the administration's typical characterization of the Democrats' view.

And even the war's strongest supporters are offering increasingly critical assessments of past decisions. Last Tuesday Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) recited a litany of past administration statements -- "stuff happens, mission accomplished, last throes, a few dead-enders" -- as indications that "we had not told the American people how tough and difficult this task would be." On Friday McCain reiterated his loyalty to the Iraq mission, but he had already made his point.

The Republicans' restiveness suggests that Bush may not be able to stick with his current Iraq policy through Election Day. Even if he does, he will come under heavy pressure from his own party after Nov. 7 to pursue a demonstrably more effective strategy -- or to begin pulling American forces out.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company