What a difference four years can make. On May 1, 2003, President Bush was master of the political universe, strutting across an aircraft carrier in a flight suit, backed by the banner that declared "Mission Accomplished." Yet today, with his war still raging on the eve of that ignominious anniversary, he speaks for only three in 10 Americans, and he faces a recalcitrant Democratic Congress that was elected with a mandate to rein him in.
By launching a war of choice for dubious reasons, and without the requisite resources to win the peace, he has been the chief architect of his own political demise. Simply put, most Americans have gotten fed up with his empty assurances: "It's slowly but surely making progress" (July 2003); "We're making steady progress" (September 2004); "Iraq has made incredible political progress" (September 2005); "Iraqis are making inspiring progress" (October 2005); "There's progress" (January 2006).
So it's no surprise to discover that, in the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, Bush's war stewardship is viewed favorably by a mere 27 percent of the citizenry.
In a British-style parliamentary system, he would be gone by now. But even a politically weakened American commander in chief can still play a strong hand - which is why, at least for now, the congressional Democrats are doomed to fail in their current bid to legislate an end to the war.
Public sentiment is irrelevant; all that matters, in this hardball political moment, is the stubborn stance of the Decider and the math on Capitol Hill. Bush will veto any spending bill that contains a pullout timetable, and the Democrats lack the votes to override him. Later this spring, they'll probably wind up giving him the war money he wants, absent any pullout timetable, in part because they don't want to be tarred as being "against the troops," particularly on the eve of an election year. (Indeed, a CBS News poll reported this month that only 9 percent of Americans favor cutting off all the war money.) So, looking down the road, it's a cinch bet that our soldiers will still be dying on the day Bush fobs off the disaster on his successor.
But the Democrats are prodding Bush anyway and will continue to do so, because they have the wind at their backs.
They know they'll lose the current skirmish, but so what? They're motivated to act on the war because there is scant public support for the president's four-year record of failure (five years, if one includes the prewar drumbeat about Saddam Hussein's "grave and gathering" nuclear threat, and his purported ties to the 9/11 planners). The Democrats are strategizing for the long run, hoping to shape public sentiment for the 2008 elections, calculating that a major course correction in Iraq (even though all remaining options are treacherous) can occur only if they control the White House as well as Capitol Hill.
In the months ahead, they're going to force House and Senate Republicans to vote repeatedly on the war - GOP members will have to decide, again and again, whether to stand with their unpopular president - in the hopes that some of those lawmakers will go to the White House and essentially tell Bush, "We've got to run for reelection next year, so will you please compromise with those people?" But that's hoping for the unlikely: Loyalty to the Leader has become virtually ingrained in the GOP culture, and the Democrats know it.
So, with an eye on 2008, Democrats figure that ongoing Bush obstinacy and GOP fealty will benefit them politically. Swing-voting independents bailed out on Bush several years ago, and they haven't returned: In a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, 80 percent of independents said that Bush's "surge" has either had no impact or made matters worse. Every poll indicates that roughly 60 percent of Americans favor tying the war money to a troop withdrawal timetable (again, with independents tipping the balance). And there's even broad support for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid's recent contention that the military war in Iraq has been "lost": An NBC-Wall Street Journal survey, conducted after Reid spoke, suggests that most Americans, by 55 percent to 36 percent, believe that victory in Iraq is no longer possible. In other words, Republicans seeking reelection next year are stuck with a defiant president who still fires up the conservative base - but alienates almost everyone else.
The Democrats, in their war-spending negotiations, have even offered him ample wiggle room. They've suggested that a March '08 pullout deadline would just be a goal, and that Bush would be able to waive it, as long as he could justify doing so. They've codified some rules for resting and equipping the troops, but they've also said that Bush could waive those rules, as well, with proper justification. In response, however, Bush hasn't ceded an inch, accusing the Democrats the other day of merely seeking to "contradict the judgment of our military commanders," which is a bit rich, considering the fact that when his own military commanders last autumn publicly expressed skepticism about the feasibility of his "surge" proposal, he did contradict their judgment - by replacing them.
Bush's defiant strategy is obvious: He is stalling for time. He's trying to forestall congressional Republican defections by playing to their constituencies back home. He's trying to keep the "surge" alive in hopes that war progress at some point will be real instead of rhetorical, thereby defusing the political pressure.
By standing firm, Bush clearly hopes to split the Democrats, that the antiwar left will rise up and smite Democratic lawmakers who cave on the pullout timetable. Certainly, some analysts are predicting such an event. Ex-Clinton pollster Dick Morris writes, with dramatic flair, that "the fault lines between those willing to fund the war without a withdrawal amendment, and those who insist on a date certain for a pullout, will define a growing split akin to the one that drove students into the streets of Chicago outside the party convention in 1968."
I doubt it. Thus far, Democrats (even left-leaning activists) have showed considerable discipline and restraint, mindful that public infighting will imperil their '08 prospects. The liberal blogosphere and Code Pink (www.codepink4peace.org) won't like it when the Democrats drop the pullout timetable, but they hardly represent all antiwar liberals; indeed, I suspect that many on the left will be satisfied if the Democrats keep the heat on Bush by insisting that future war money be tied to provisions that impose mandatory benchmarks on the Iraqis. That issue alone can potentially attract a number of congressional Republicans.
Longer term, the Democrats still need to work out some serious issues (what's the most responsible and feasible plan for managing Iraq, in the wake of a massive troop pullout?), but most Americans seem prepared to give them a chance to make their mark on national security. For that opportunity, the Democrats can thank George W. Bush.
For the April 20-23 NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, go to: http://go.philly.com/nbcapril
For the April 10 Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, go to: http://go.philly.com/latbloom
For the April 13 CBS News poll, go to: http://go.philly.com/cbspoll EndText