It's the war, stupid

GOP pundits claim the Democrats are in "disarray" and would be adrift if they take back Congress. But polls show their likely victory is because they stand for something -- change in Iraq.

Joan Walsh
November 3, 2006 5:48PM (UTC)

One of the last soothing Republican election platitudes perished Wednesday night, when the New York Times published its final poll before Tuesday's reckoning. Nearly 75 percent of those surveyed said they believe Democrats will scale back or end the U.S. military commitment in Iraq if they take back Congress, and not coincidentally, they favor Democrats over Republicans in the election 52-33 percent.

That yanked away even the threadbare security blanket some Republicans have been clutching in the closing weeks of the campaign -- the notion that a Democratic win isn't a mandate for change, because the Democrats haven't put out a coherent platform, on the war or anything else. The National Review's Jonah Goldberg shared the GOP talking points on Tuesday. "Ironically, the only way Democrats can actually win is by sounding a lot like President Bush," he proclaimed in a column. "But the truth is that if they take back Congress, they will have exhausted their mandate simply by being 'not Bush.'" Even my new Republican best friend, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, who is otherwise sober about the election and the war, has taken comfort in that idea. "The Republican Party of 1994, love them or hate them, told you where they stood," he told me Oct. 18. "What does Nancy Pelosi's Democratic Party stand for? What is their mandate when they win, that they're not Republicans?"


I told Scarborough I thought the Democrats would win because they stood for change in Iraq. The fabled "Democratic disarray" is actually overstated on this issue. It's true there's no single Democratic position on Iraq; it's true there's plenty of intraparty debate. But it's also true that most congressional Democrats favor a timeline for troop reduction and a disengagement plan. Even the cautious Nancy Pelosi, who has worked hard not to let the GOP make the election about "San Francisco Democrats," recently released a six-point post-election action plan that puts the party behind "the phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2006." It's an easy contrast with President Bush, who's been preaching only "stay the course" -- even if in late October, at the end of the bloodiest month for American troops all year, he tried to lie about it. Even in the final days of the campaign, Bush continues to embrace the despised architect of the botched war, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, making the stakes in Tuesday's election even more clear, and the comparison with Democrats more stark.

What a difference two years makes. Although the chaos in Iraq was already apparent in November 2004, Sen. John Kerry couldn't knock off a vulnerable president at least partly because he didn't define their differences on the war sharply enough. That's why it was so scary to have Kerry turn up this week, on Halloween no less, and slow the Democrats' electoral momentum with his so-called botched joke on Iraq. Yes, Kerry only botched a joke, while Bush has botched a war, and yes, Republicans were despicable in their intentional misreading of his words -- but Kerry should never have given them an opening. I have a deal to make with Kerry -- if I say I believe you simply blew a punch line, rather than slurred the troops, will you go away? For good? Done.

Kerry's reappearance was so galling because it threatened to remind voters of a day not too long ago when Democrats tried to have it both ways -- tried to oppose the president but support the war, sort of. Or to put it another way, tried to be for the $87 billion before they were against it. Those days are gone, for most Democrats, and good riddance. But at the risk of spoiling the party before it begins, it doesn't feel as good as I thought it would to be right, about either the election, or the war. On the eve of what looks as though it might be the biggest Democratic victory since 1992, I'm feeling a little bit somber. Because on Nov. 8, it will be time to figure out how to get out of Iraq, and it won't involve victory, for anyone.

Still, I'd rather have Democrats in control of Congress as we begin that awful task. Long after all the votes are tallied, the election-spending totaled up, the ads rated, the exit polls examined, I think we'll find that the most crucial election-season event this year was the publication of Bob Woodward's "State of Denial." I'm not going to debate Woodward's journalistic shortcomings -- my friends Sidney Blumenthal and Arianna Huffington have done a great job of that. Of course it must be said that the picture of the Bush administration that Woodward shatters -- a decisive Bush, a sober, experienced Dick Cheney, an innovative, risk-taking Rumsfeld -- was in fact a portrait heavily of his own creation, in his previous books "Bush at War" and "Plan of Attack." Yet history could eventually absolve Woodward for those sins because he ultimately laid bare both the administration's dissembling and its incompetence in executing this awful war.

Reading "State of Denial" was unexpectedly disturbing for me. It made me realize that the only thing worse than my angry liberal bubble (in which I'd assumed that Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice either didn't know or didn't care about the chaos in Iraq) was learning that in fact some of them did know, a few of them even cared -- and they still couldn't make a difference in stabilizing the country or fighting the insurgency. Watching Powell and Richard Armitage, and then to a lesser degree Rice and Stephen Hadley, try to challenge Rumsfeld's iron grip on Iraq, and on Bush's perception of it, was incredibly depressing. It was another Hurricane Katrina moment -- if Katrina showed their incompetence domestically, "State of Denial" documented it in Iraq, and the consequences have been even deadlier. This week brought even more confirmation that victory, or even "peace with honor," is virtually impossible in Iraq, with the news that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered U.S. troops out of Sadr City, where they were seeking a missing U.S. soldier. It puts the lie to Bush's simplistic formulation "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." Maliki is standing up, the United States is having to stand down while its soldiers are still in danger, and the odds are looking good that in the end we'll find that we exchanged a Sunni tyrant for a Shiite.

There are plenty of reasons, besides the war, that Republicans seem headed for an epochal defeat on Tuesday: the Mark Foley scandal, Jack Abramoff and all he touched, even, belatedly, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and how it exposed our homeland insecurity. After years of Republican dominance in Washington, we learned once again that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Powerful Republicans gamed the system to get money, sex and power, even as they tried to tell their evangelical Christian base they're different. Thursday brought a new Republican sex scandal: Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals and founder and leader of the Colorado Springs-based New Life Church, resigned his post after a male prostitute claimed he'd had a three-year relationship with the Christian right leader (although Haggard denies the affair).


I'll confess to enjoying that spectacle: watching a party that's built a base on gay-bashing come undone over gay sex scandals? Justice is rarely so swift or sweet. But the chaos in Iraq that's contributed to the Democrats' likely victory on Tuesday is a different story. They have a mandate, all right, but it's a sobering one.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2006 Elections Iraq War John F. Kerry, D-mass.

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