In political terms, the debate between President Bush and the Democrats over who knew what when on WMD is hugely important. But it's an argument about yesterday.

In real-world terms, the tentative debate that is starting to take shape about how to salvage the situation in Iraq is far more important. It's an argument about tomorrow.

The WMD shootout is more passionate, more colorful, more driven by a desire to win history's verdict on whether the war was a mistake. The press is really getting pumped about this, since it lets Bush backers paint the Democrats as revisionist liars and Bush detractors accuse the president once again of willful distortion.

The second debate, by contrast, is a depressing one with no great options, unfolding against the backdrop of continuing American and Iraqi casualties.

Democrats have grown more vocal in calling for changes in Iraq policy, though few have taken the Russ Feingold let's-pull-out approach. But it is a mark of how much the environment has shifted that some Republicans are now prodding the administration for an exit strategy. Some might call it the Let's-Get-Out-But-Not-Call-It-A-Timetable Act of 2005.

Something tells me the politicians are reading the polls, which show record low support for the war and record high feelings that Bush justified the invasion by misleading the country.

But the polls don't make a solution any easier to come by, not for those who worry that a U.S. pullout would cause the fragile Baghdad government to collapse and lead to civil war.

Which is why the WMD debate is so much easier: All you have to do is bash the other side.

Exactly how Bush benefits by arguing that Democrats made the same mistakes he did is not crystal clear to me, but I guess it beats hanging out there by yourself.

"The Senate took its first step today to tighten the reins on the war in Iraq, adopting a resolution that calls for the administration to hasten the transition of full sovereignty to Iraq and speed the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops," says the Los Angeles Times |,0,6461955.story?coll=la-home-headlines. "The measure, which comes as President Bush's approval ratings are the lowest of his presidency, was approved 79 to 19 in a strong bipartisan vote. The resolution calls for 2006 to be 'a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty,' which would create conditions for 'the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq.' "

Legally speaking, demanding progress reports every three months, as the measure does, means little. Politically, it speaks volumes.

A Democratic alternative requiring timetables lost 58 to 40.

"Expressing growing unease over the war in Iraq," says the Chicago Tribune |,1,2740136.story?coll=chi-news-hed, "a newly emboldened Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to instruct the Bush administration to explain its strategy for completing the U.S. mission in Iraq and bringing American troops home."

The Boston Globe | uses stronger language:

"In a stinging rebuke to President Bush's war strategy, the Senate called on the White House yesterday to provide regular updates on the conditions for withdrawal in Iraq and voted to allow some terrorists convicted by military tribunals at US detention camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to appeal their military verdicts in civilian courts."

Bill Kristol | hits back at Senate Dems:

"At least the anti-American left, which wants to get out of Iraq immediately and to impeach the president, is consistent. But Kennedy--and his colleagues like Sen. Harry Reid--do not really want to follow the logic of their accusations. They would rather just damage the president--and the country's foreign policy--and enjoy the political effect.

"Now the president and his team seem committed to fighting back. They have the advantage that the facts are on their side. As several commentators have pointed out in this magazine and elsewhere--most recently Norman Podhoretz in the December Commentary--the Democratic charge that Bush lied us into war is itself a lie. Lies can work when unrefuted. In a healthy democracy, they tend to boomerang when confronted and exposed. Now Bush has begun to refute the lie. He needs to keep doing so, and also to continue making the positive case for why the war was right and necessary.

"If the American people really come to a settled belief that Bush lied us into war, his presidency will be over. He won't have the basic level of trust needed to govern. His initiatives, domestic and foreign, will founder. Support for the war on terror will wane. The lie that Bush lied us into war threatens the Bush presidency in a way no ordinary political charge does. Bush needs to refute it -- and to keep on refuting it -- for his sake, for the nation's, and for the sake of the truth."

Slate's Fred Kaplan | is skeptical about the Bush counterattack:

"As his policies are failing and even his base has begun to abandon him, a new line is being trotted out: 'Yes, we were wrong about some things, but everybody else was wrong, too, so get over it.'

"Quite apart from the political motives behind the move, does Bush have a point? Did everybody believe, in the run-up to the war, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction? And are Bush's Democratic critics, therefore, hypocritically rewriting history when they now protest that the president misled them -- and the rest of us -- into war by manipulating intelligence data?"

Weighing the talking point that this has all been investigated, Kaplan says: "This is not true. Two bipartisan panels have examined the question of how the intelligence on Iraq's WMDs turned out so wrong. Both deliberately skirted the issue of why. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence deferred the second part of its probe -- dealing with whether officials oversimplified or distorted the conclusions reached by the various intelligence agencies -- until after the 2004 election, and its Republican chairman has done little to revive the issue since. . . .

"There's something misleading about Bush's wording on this point, as well: The investigation 'found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments.' The controversy concerns pressure from the White House and the secretary of defense to form the judgments -- that is, to make sure the agencies reached specific judgments -- not to change them afterward."

How is the GOP dissembling? Josh Marshall | can barely count the ways:

"Here's the clip | from Mehlman's appearance this morning on the Russert show. And I honestly found it hard to keep up with the full number of lies and half-truths that rolled out of his mouth.

"I know that some of my more cautious readers will blanch at my use of the 'L' word. But when so many falsehoods and misleading statements are rolled atop each other, there's really no other description that fairly categorizes what the man is doing. As for why he's doing so, it's not just that he has to as head of the RNC. He was part of the deception and perfidy to the constitution. So like the president and his advisors, Mehlman's dishonesty today is just self-protection.

"Let's catalog a few of them.

"One was that the Senate intel report exonerated the administration of any effort to mislead the American people over Iraq. Wrong. They specifically did not look at that question.

"He also said the Silbermann/Robb Commission concluded the same thing. Wrong. They too were specifically not authorized to examine that question.

"He said the British Butler Report said the same thing. First of all, who cares what a Report written to cover Tony Blair said? Second of all, it said no such thing."

Everyone seems to be sticking with his ideological side. But Matthew Yglesias |, on American Prospect, is willing to take on his team:

"Grant President Bush one thing: There is a whiff of hypocrisy about Democratic senators and representatives who favored the Iraq War complaining that the president distorted intelligence findings to sell the war to the public. That the biggest and most important of Bush's deceptions -- that Saddam Hussein was likely to give a nuclear bomb or other mass-casualty device to al-Qaeda -- was a deception was well-understood among those who cared to inform themselves about the matter beforehand.

"The administration's more subtle manipulation of the WMD intelligence was less obvious at the time, but an inquisitive member of Congress could have gotten a fairly clear picture of things were he or she interested in doing so. . . .

"Many members of Congress have security clearances that would have allowed them to see information that the White House, through its control of the classification process, hid from public view -- documents such as the caveats in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that were conveniently removed from the public release and the dissenting opinion from the State Department's intelligence agency regarding Iraq's aluminum tubes.

"Many Democrats did, of course, see that something was up and tried to resist the drive to war. But many did not. Nowadays, all express outrage about distortions and manipulation, but if the opponents of war among them had been better at doing their jobs in 2002 we might not be having this conversation in 2005."

Kevin Drum | is more in the Josh Marshall camp:

"In the debate on Iraq, Bush acted as both prosecutor and judge. He made his case as strongly as he could -- which is fine -- but he also withheld crucial information that would have allowed his opponents to make their case as strongly as they could -- which isn't. In short, in order to further his own political aims, he abused his power to decide what information remains classified and what doesn't.

"In a democracy, this is unacceptable. It's unacceptable for the president to decide that only information favorable to his own case can be part of the public discourse. But all too often, that's what happened in the run-up to the Iraq war."

At Power Line, John Hinderaker | likes the latest presidential rhetoric:

"Bush needs to keep giving this kind of speech every couple of days for the foreseeable future. There is a limit to the MSM's ability to censor his message by not reporting his speeches, as they have so often done throughout his Presidency. Sooner or later, if he keeps pounding away, the message will get through. And it is a powerful message indeed."

Censor his message? Is there anyone on earth who has more access to the media on a daily basis than POTUS?

The denizens of Rightwing Nuthouse | are a bit exercised about the GOP challenging Bush:

"It isn't just that this is the absolute worst time for Senate Republicans to turn into jellyfish on the war. It is their pathetic belief that this will somehow shield them from criticism or lessen their association with the War in Iraq in any way. Surely they don't believe it will have any affect on the White House. In which case, they are directing their concerns toward the Iraqi people and government. In fact, this is the primary reason they are giving for this surrender."

But the jellyfish are accomplishing something, says Americablog |

"This action by the Senate completely undermines the current White House strategy of attack and smear opponents. If not, he has to also attack the Republicans in the Senate. He'll have to add John Warner to his list of those who are they trying to in Bush's words 'endanger the troops.' "

Looks like there was another journalist enmeshed in the Plame case, right in the midst of all us Washington Post | types:

"Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward testified under oath Monday in the CIA leak case that a senior administration official told him about CIA operative Valerie Plame and her position at the agency nearly a month before her identity was disclosed.

"In a more than two-hour deposition, Woodward told Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald that the official casually told him in mid-June 2003 that Plame worked as a CIA analyst on weapons of mass destruction, and that he did not believe the information to be classified or sensitive, according to a statement Woodward released yesterday."

Hmmm . . . Who was this Shallow Throat, and why is this the first we're hearing about it?

Sure, Alito may have said he was against abortion, but that was then and this is now:

"Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. told senators yesterday that his personal pro-life views as a young lawyer have no bearing on how he would rule on abortion cases in a courtroom, according to several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee," reports the Washington Times |

" 'It was different then. I was an advocate seeking a job. It was a political job,' Sen. Dianne Feinstein said, paraphrasing Judge Alito's comments to her during an hour-long meeting yesterday. 'I'm now a judge.' "

If you missed this USA Today | poll, it has Bush down to 37 percent:

"Fewer than one in 10 adults say they would prefer a congressional candidate who is a Republican and who agrees with Bush on most major issues, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday. Even among Republicans, seven of 10 are most likely to back a candidate who has had at least some disagreements with the president."

As I've noted, though, that's a generic question, and people tend to vote for their own member of Congress, which is why so few districts are competitive.

This NYT | piece won't shock anyone who's been following the Libby case, but it does make clear the central role of reporters if the thing goes to trial:

"Lawyers for I. Lewis Libby Jr., the former White House official indicted on perjury charges, plan to seek testimony from journalists beyond those cited in the indictment and will probably challenge government agreements limiting their grand jury testimony, people involved in the case said Tuesday.

" 'That's clearly going to be part of the strategy - to get access to all the relevant records and determine what did the media really know,' said a lawyer close to the defense who spoke on condition of anonymity."

And don't miss this part: "Defense lawyers plan to seek notes not only from the three reporters cited in the indictment - Tim Russert of NBC News, Matt Cooper of Time Magazine and Judith Miller, formerly of The New York Times - but also from other journalists who have been tied to the case.

"Chief among those is Robert D. Novak. . . ."

Does this mean the first time we'll get Novak's full account is on the witness stand?