After struggling for days with questions about the genesis of the Iraq War, the GOP presidential candidates appear to be coalescing behind a new strategy: Shift the focus to what’s happening in Iraq right now, and blame it all on Obama.

As a number of us have noted, the current line of questioning for Republicans and Hillary Clinton about Iraq — “would you have supported the invasion knowing what we know now?” — is deeply flawed, and risks whitewashing the real history of the run-up to the war. Now, however, it seems possible that this weak line of questioning might actually aid and abet the current GOP strategy for talking about Iraq.

Robert Costa has the goods on the Republican rhetorical shift that’s underway:

After more than a decade bearing the political burden of Iraq, Republicans are making a dogged effort to shed it by arguing that the Islamic State’s gruesome ascent is a symptom of Obama’s foreign policy, rather than a byproduct of the 2003 invasion they once championed….

At the least, it is an attempt to have Iraq seen as a shared failure, begun by a Republican president and a Republican-controlled Congress but inherited and fumbled by Democrats….

The political endgame for Republicans is a general election where Clinton can be portrayed as someone who initially backed the U.S. mission but did not see it through. In that sense, foisting blame on Obama is only the first step in the GOP’s aims. Knowing their ownership of the invasion in the eyes of voters has not faded, they would like to distance themselves from the messy debate over weapons of mass destruction and make the Islamic State — how it rose and how to stop it — the central political battleground on foreign policy.

Jeb Bush is already testing out this new strategy. It’s hard to say whether it will work: While blaming Obama is a sure-fire winner among GOP primary voters, the middle of the country may still have firm memories of Iraq as Bush’s War. The strategy also risks putting more pressure on Republicans to detail what they would do in Iraq instead. Of course, with the situation in Iraq deteriorating, and with Obama’s numbers on foreign policy ailing, perhaps many Americans will be open to spreading the blame around.

It’s also worth noting, though, that the current sanitizing of the history of the Iraq War could help in this effort. The “knowing what you know now” question simplifies the genesis of the Iraq War by blaming it all on a supposed intelligence failure. That alone whitewashes away the fact that many critics warned at the time that the intelligence might not actually indicate what Bush and company claimed it did, and that Bush might be cherry-picking intel to help build the case for an invasion. Worse, as Peter Beinart and James Fallows explain, this narrative also obscures the fact that invading was a bad idea regardless of whether Saddam had WMDs — because it risked creating all kind of unintended consequences.

The simplistic line of questioning could help the new GOP rhetorical strategy. The story now becomes: Hey, we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq based on what we know now, and it was a mistake, given the intelligence failure. But since we did, what really matters is how we prosecute the current conflict. This is now all about Obama’s strategy — Bush’s “mistake” is old news — and Obama’s weakness is really to blame for the current mess.

It is of course legitimate, and desirable, to have a forward-looking debate over what we should do now, as well as over Obama’s role in helping create the status quo and his strategy there going forward. But the current chaos should not be divorced from the original decision to invade and the wrong-headed thinking that actually drove it. That decoupling also risks burying the question of whether the candidates have learned anything from that failed thinking as they discuss what should come next. The flawed line of questioning about the run-up to the war risks enabling all of this.

It will be on Democrats to prevent that from happening. But they might find themselves constrained in their ability to do that, since Clinton and Democrats, too, have an interest in keeping the questions safely confined to shallow “based on what you know now” waters.


* WHAT’S NEXT ON NSA BULK SURVEILLANCE? Rand Paul wrapped up his filibuster of Mitch McConnell’s push to extend NSA bulk surveillance late last night, an effort joined by Dem Ron Wyden. Now it looks as if there may be Senate votes over the weekend on the U.S.A. Freedom Act, which would rein in bulk surveillance, and on a clean short-term extension of it that McConnell wants.

It’s very possible that neither gets 60 votes. After that, the way forward is unclear — with the expiration of the key provision of the Patriot Act looming.

* QUOTE OF THE DAY, NSA-SPYING-DEAD-ENDERS EDITION: National Journal reports on Senate diehards who insist on continuing NSA bulk surveillance, despite a bipartisan push to end it. They include Mitch McConnell, Richard Burr, and Tom Cotton:

“My preference would be to permanently extend all three authorities,” Cotton said in an interview, referring to the bulk-collection power as well as a provision allowing surveillance of “lone wolf” suspects not linked to any formal terrorist group or government, and another allowing “roving wiretaps” to target individuals instead of a specific device.

Permanently extend bulk surveillance! Can you say War On Terror Without End?

* COULD CONSERVATIVE HELP FAST TRACK PASS? Roll Call’s Matt Fuller reports that House conservatives appear to be softening in their opposition to Fast Track authority for Obama to negotiate the big Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. It appears likely to pass the Senate, and if House Republican opposition does fizzle, it could soon be headed to the president’s desk.

It looks as if House Tea Partiers may have finally found a grant of broad authority to Obama that they can live with!

* CUBA, UNITED STATES NEARING DEAL: Just in from the New York Times:

The United States and Cuba are closer than ever to reaching an agreement to fully restore diplomatic relations and reopen embassies, officials in both countries say…with a number of obstacles out of the way or close to it, particularly for the Cubans, the talks have reached the most optimistic point after four rounds of conversations in Havana and Washington.

Clinton supports Obama’s Cuba policy, and Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush oppose it, another area where how far to push U.S. international engagement forms a key contrast for 2016.

* OBAMA’S FAVORABLE RATING ON RISE: Gallup finds that Obama’s favorable rating now stands at 53 percent, up four points since March and the highest since September of 2013. This is fueled by a sharp rise since last fall among independents.

Obama’s favorable ratings have outpaced his approval, which now stands at a less-than-impressive 46 percent in the polling averages. But still, given the GOP strategy of painting a Clinton presidency as a third term of Obama, favorable numbers like these can’t hurt.

* AND DEMS IN DISARRAY? NOT SO MUCH: E.J. Dionne has a good column on disagreements among “Warren populists” and more “centrist” Democrats on economic issues, particularly trade, with a cautionary note: These differences are greatly exaggerated.

The epithets exaggerate the differences between two sides that in fact need each other. There is political energy in the populist critique because rising inequality and concentrated wealth really are an outrage. But the centrists offer remedies that, in most cases, the populists accept.

There is a philosophical argument among Dems over the economy that remains unresolved, but that shouldn’t obscure all the overlap that exists on many actual economic policies.