War-Gaming the Campaign

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007; 9:13 AM

For at least a year, Iraq has loomed large in the narrative of the 2008 election.

The Democrats would run against the war, squabbling only over the degree of their intensity and how early they opposed the war.

The Republicans would run in favor of the Bush war strategy, squabbling only over past mismanagement of the war and rarely invoking the president's name.

With two-thirds of the country against the war, that was a big plus for the Dems.

But what about the recent decline in U.S. military casualties and Iraqi civilian deaths? This may or may not turn out to be a long-term trend, especially with a gradual reduction in American forces to the pre-surge level. But it does seem that Iraq is fading a bit from the news, particularly on television, and that's in part because of a paucity of big suicide bombings that kill dozens of people (along with concerns among producers about Iraq fatigue).

The idea that the situation in Iraq is improving is getting some scattered notice (a lead story on "World News," a front-page Washington Post piece) but has yet to really take hold.

The war will be a big issue no matter what, given the circumstances under which President Bush took the country to war, the international fallout and the thousands of dead and wounded American soldiers. But could the impact be muddled if the trend toward reduced violence continues?

"It hasn't become much of a campaign issue--yet--but for the first time in a long while the news from Iraq isn't unrelentingly ghastly," writes the New Republic's Michael Crowley. "Some previously hard-to-imagine glimmers of hope are now emerging. Of course there are a thousand caveats here . . . But this weekend an experienced Iraq correspondent--someone who has been extremely bleak about the war in the past--told me he thinks it's really possible that the country is turning a corner.

"Which raises all sorts of secondary but fascinating political questions: What do the Democrats do if--yes: if, if, if--the surge appears to have succeeded? . . . Indeed, if Iraq somehow stabilizes and even incrementally improves, doesn't that affect the presidential campaign in important and unpredictable ways? Obviously it's almost impossible to conceive of an outcome in Iraq that any reasonable person could call 'victory.' Democrats will [reasonably] argue that the adventure wasn't worth the cost in lives and dollars. But the notion that Bush's patience really did save Iraq from unmitigated humanitarian and strategic catastrophe might be a powerful one.

"Expectations have been lowered to such an extent over the past several months that any glimmer of hope is a godsend for Republicans. I suspect Americans are pining for anything they can declare good news, and want to believe we haven't been humiliated after all. With a touch of evidentiary wind at his back, then, it may be far easier for, say, a Rudy Giuliani to argue 'See? Things are getting better! I told you so'! than for a Hillary Clinton to dourly say, 'Maybe, but it still wasn't worth it.' . . .

"I wonder whether the Democrats have been preparing for that possibility--and what their contingency plans are if the Iraq debate tacks substantially back the GOP's way."

But the White House still has its finger on the scale, as Dick Polman reports:

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