It's hard to take seriously the theatrical breast-beating of "moderate" Republicans suddenly braying about President Bush's poor handling of the Iraq war. Reports of 11 angry GOP Congress folk meeting with the president Tuesday dominated the news all day. The session is being treated with shock and solemnity, as though the ghost of Sen. Barry Goldwater had come back and marched to the White House, as he did in 1974 to tell Richard Nixon he had to resign. For once, I actually believe Tony Snow, not the media: "This is not one of those great cresting moments when party discontents are coming in to read the president the riot act," Snow said.
Clearly no riot act was read. Bush came out after the meeting and declared he likes ... benchmarks! "It makes sense to have benchmarks as part of our discussion about how to go forward," he told reporters. But then he vowed to veto a Democratic bill involving benchmarks, which would provide two months of war funding, and only release the rest of what the president asked for if the Iraqis show signs of political progress. And just to prove the Tuesday Republican showdown was all hot air, the leaders of the formerly angry Republican 11 told reporters they'd vote against the Democratic bill as well. Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia told the Washington Post all 11 would oppose the Democrats' latest bill, despite their misgivings about the war, in solidarity with the president. "The key for everybody is to try to find a way to declare victory and get out of there," he said.
So what should Democrats do? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took a risk by stripping timelines from the new appropriations bill, to the chagrin of the antiwar left. She mollified that flank somewhat by green-lighting a vote on a bill that would have started redeploying troops within 90 days and withdrawn all troops not needed to fight al-Qaida within another six months. The "Out of Iraq" caucus, Moveon.org and other antiwar groups supported the bill, which predictably went down to defeat 225-171, with no Republican support. (Pelosi voted for it; Steny Hoyer voted against it.) As I write, the House just passed a Pelosi-backed bill by Rep. David Obey that would provide two months of war funding, with the rest subject to a progress report from the administration in July, by a 221-205 margin. But it's not clear what happens next. Leading Democratic senators have expressed opposition to the House approach, and neither body has the votes to override a promised presidential veto even if some version passed the Senate.
Most amazing to me is the big play Bush's supposed "concession" on benchmarks got on cable news shows and in the New York Times and Washington Post. Howard Fineman said it represents "a tanker beginning to turn" on the president's Iraq policy on Keith Olbermann's "Countdown." Here's what Bush said: "The benchmarks should include adoption of a national oil law and preparations for provincial elections and progress on a new de-Baathification policy and a review of the Iraqi constitution." OK, "adoption" of a national oil law is a concrete step, but the others come with squishy words like "prepare," "review" and "progress." And Bush has repeatedly said he doesn't want those benchmarks, however wishy-washy, to be linked to consequences if the Iraqis fail to meet them, but rather to rewards for good behavior. This is the tanker turning around? I don't think so.
It will admittedly be hard for the al-Maliki government to meet any benchmarks if the Iraqi Parliament really takes a two-month recess, as it's threatening to do. But how can George Bush criticize when he spent six weeks in Crawford before the 9/11 attacks (four of them after he got that subtly worded brief: "Bin Laden determined to attack inside U.S." from George Tenet Aug. 6, 2001). But the Iraq parliament did succeed in doing something the U.S. Congress has not: A majority of Parliament members announced support for a bill that would impose timelines for American troop withdrawal and freeze the number of American troops. I've said for a long time there would have to be a political solution, not a military solution to this war. Maybe the Iraqis will beat us to it.
Back home, Congress' dithering on the war is clearly taking a toll: A USA Today poll showed their handling of the war is only slightly more popular with voters than Bush's -- though Pelosi's approval rating is 53 percent. I've been impressed by Pelosi's handling of her left and moderate caucuses, but I don't know how much longer she can continue floating compromises that get rejected by all but a handful of Republicans and even some Democrats. I'll be discussing all of this tonight on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country."