Published on Wednesday, January 31, 2007 by San Francisco Chronicle
GOP Fears War Could Help Dems for Years
by Marc Sandalow
The bloodshed in Iraq already has cost the Republicans control of Congress, devastated the Bush presidency and made Democrats the favorites heading into the 2008 presidential campaign.
With no end in sight to the nearly 4-year-old war, there is widening concern among Republicans that losing what was described widely in 2003 as "the biggest gamble of the modern presidency'' could hurt their party's electoral prospects for a generation to come.
The safety of the troops and security of the nation naturally are at the forefront of the debate over the way forward in Iraq. Lawmakers from both parties have exhibited deliberate caution, frustrating many constituents who want Congress to play a more aggressive role. The Senate has put off a vote on a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq until at least next week, and the House is waiting for the Senate.
Yet the potential political consequences form an unmistakable backdrop to decisions being made on Capitol Hill, which many compare to consequential votes cast 40 years ago during the Vietnam War.
Republicans have held advantages over Democrats on national security matters since the 1960s, presenting themselves during the Cold War and the post-Sept. 11 years as the more competent, muscular, military-friendly party, less tolerant of America's aggressors and more willing to use force.
Iraq may be changing the perception.
"In times of war, the instinct is to trust dad more than mom, and the Republicans have benefited from that,'' said James Pinkerton, a former aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and a fellow at the nonpartisan New America Foundation. "But if dad keeps wrecking the car, then there may be reason to change.''
The level of concern was palpable among many of those attending the Republican Party's annual meeting in Washington last week, according to several participants, and can be detected in the fretful statements of GOP lawmakers as they weigh Bush's latest war plans.
"Republicans have to demonstrate that they can competently manage the military (and) patriotic symbols they have been entrusted with, and right now that's an open question,'' Pinkerton said.
The queasiness of many Republicans is reflected in poll numbers that show Americans no longer favor their president or their party to keep the country safe.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted earlier this month -- which found 70 percent of Americans disapproved of Bush's handling of the war -- found that a majority trust Democrats to best keep the country safe from terrorists. The same survey asked respondents to say whom they trusted to do a better job handling the situation in Iraq. Sixty percent said Democrats, and 33 percent said Bush.
"The problem we've got is at the very core level, Americans are beginning to doubt that Republicans know what they are doing in foreign policy,'' said GOP strategist Mike Collins.
"George Bush's presidency is intertwined with the Middle East indelibly. If this is a successful endeavor, if Iraq becomes a democratic state, a stable and democratic state -- and I hope to God this is a success -- George Bush will be remembered as the architect and will go down in history as a genius,'' Collins said. "By the same token, if the pessimists are right, the cost is incalculable.''
Mirroring the Republican fear is the Democratic hope that the blunders that led to the current situation in Iraq will erase the GOP's long-held edge on national security issues.
"The results of the 2006 election preshadow what could be a fundamental electoral realignment propelled by voter disenchantment with the war in Iraq,'' said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant based in San Francisco who worked in the Clinton White House and on the presidential campaigns of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.
Lehane said a better analogy than Vietnam is the Great Depression, when the GOP's bungling of the nation's economy provided President Franklin Roosevelt an opportunity in 1932 to offer his New Deal, which provided Democratic victories for decades.
Lehane and other Democrats said the party will be able to capitalize on events in the long run only if, like Roosevelt, they are able to present an alternative vision that makes Americans feel secure.
"Clearly, the mess that President Bush has made of Iraq has broken the spell of 9/11,'' said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank in Washington. "Right now, the picture is one of cratering confidence of Bush's managing of national security.
"Democrats now must offer a positive plan for combatting jihadist extremism,'' Marshall said. "It means the door is open for Democrats to win that argument, but they will have to explain how they can do it better.''
Marshall said leaders in Congress and the 2008 presidential candidates must resist the tug of isolationism and offer a national security framework that features rebuilding international alliances and does not shy away from force when necessary.
Strategists on both sides say it is premature to make assumptions about the long-term political consequences without knowing the outcome of the war.
"No question that Iraq had done great damage to the Bush administration,'' said P.J. Crowley, director of National Defense and Homeland Security at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. "To the extent that the Bush administration portrayed itself as a group of national security all-stars who would effectively manage the world in the 21st century -- that image has largely blown up in their faces.''
But Crowley noted that the enduring images of the Vietnam War also were not in focus when the Democrat-controlled Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution to expand the war in 1964 and voted to cut off funds a decade later.
"The first thing that comes to mind for most Americans is the picture of a helicopter atop the (American) embassy'' as the U.S. fled Saigon,'' Crowley said. "Since we really don't have that picture yet, it is hard to know what the enduring legacy of Iraq will be.''
Said Pinkerton: "I think the big question for 2008 and beyond is who is going to get tagged with the failure in Iraq. You show me who gets blamed for that, and I'll tell you who is in trouble for the next generation.''
Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who spent six months as a civilian media consultant in Iraq, cautioned against drawing long-term conclusions about a war that pushed Bush's approval rating to historic heights in 2003 and then sent it plummeting to today's lows.
"There's no way to know at the end of January 2007 what the situation will be in Iraq in November 2008,'' Galen said. "It could be dreadful, but it could have calmed down to a gentle simmer.''
And GOP strategist Collins pointed out that nearly half the Democratic members of Congress voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq in 2002, and the political consequences could tarnish individuals from both parties.
"Politicians of both stripes ignored better evidence and went along with the crowd -- Republicans because they didn't want to embarrass George Bush, Democrats because they were afraid of him. Neither did their constituents a service.
"There's going to be mud on both parties' boots from this for years,'' Collins said.
©2007 San Francisco Chronicle