Democrats, Republicans, and Political Fault Lines on Iraq
from Campaign 2008

Democrats, Republicans, and Political Fault Lines on Iraq

Public disapproval of the Iraq war is starting to create fissures among Republicans and posing challenges for Democrats seeking to balance national security and political gains .

May 18, 2007 10:04 am (EST)

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Democratic and Republican lawmakers have waged a partisan struggle over Iraq for most of 2007. But debate within each party has at times been similarly intense. Congressional Republicans, worried by consistently low public approval ratings, are starting to show cracks in what had been a unified front with President Bush’s surge strategy, with a number of lawmakers pointing to the need for linking U.S. engagement in Iraq with reforms by the government in Baghdad. Democrats, who took control of both chambers of Congress at the beginning of the year, appear to be increasingly unified in pressing for a troop drawdown from Iraq. But under the surface they are beginning to grapple with the long-term consequences of the U.S. presence in the Middle East. The unfolding 2008 presidential race poses both a test and opportunity for each party to coalesce around a position on Iraq.

What is the public mood on the Iraq war?

The November 2006 midterm elections, in which Democrats swept into majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, were widely seen as a reflection of public dissatisfaction on Iraq policy. Opinion surveys since those elections have shown deepening public disapproval of the war, amid continuing reports of sectarian violence and suicide bombings in Iraq. The latest surveys show generally strong disfavor for the way President Bush has waged the war, with a majority backing a timetable for a military pullout. A much-cited poll released in late April by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found a majority of Americans doubt the United States will be able to establish a stable democracy in Iraq. The poll also showed a plurality of voters from both major parties consider the Iraq war the most important issue for them in choosing presidential candidates. These findings reflect a shift in views that began about one year ago indicating a majority of Americans believe the Iraq war was a mistake.

How unified are Democrats?

Some experts say Democratic lawmakers are displaying more unity now than at any time since the October 2002 vote authorizing the U.S. war on Iraq. They credit House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) with keeping disparate elements of the party together—ranging from the roughly eighty-member Out of Iraq Caucus, which is against unconditional further funding of the war, to the conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats. Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says Democrats have cohered around the policy that “it isn’t working, we’ve got to responsibly extricate ourselves and eventually begin talking about containing the fallout, not victory.” He adds: “Their challenge is to keep ratcheting up the pressure, keep forcing Republicans to vote to stay in Iraq, and to lay the conditions under which that Republican support might collapse at the end of the summer.”

At the same time, the party has had to periodically reconcile differing views. When Reid characterized the war as lost, a number of Democratic lawmakers distanced themselves from the remark. The party has not yet had to fully confront a divide between traditional Democratic foreign policymakers and liberal activists in the party over longer-term strategy such as U.S. deployments in the Middle East, says Peter Beinart, CFR senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy. The Democrats’ resolution vetoed by President Bush was in some ways more moderate than the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. While it set timetables for withdrawing troops, it also provided for a continuing military presence in the region. Leading Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, while critical of the surge, all support a sizeable U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf. But Beinart sees growing influence by grassroots activists in the party who do not believe a U.S. troop presence in the Mideast is necessary for stability. “The view that stability in the region is going to require a significant U.S. presence in Iraq itself, particularly in non-Kurdish Iraq, is a point of some difference between Democrats and liberal activists,” Beinart says.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote recently that among the major presidential candidates, Edwards appears to be particularly responsive (Roll Call) to liberal activists’ views on Iraq. Nancy E. Roman, who directs the CFR Washington program, says a balancing act will be necessary for some members of Congress running for reelection in 2008 as well as for presidential candidates. “The Democrats now have to hold onto seats in tight districts,” she says. “Their own constituents won’t let them give up on troop withdrawal.”

How unified are Republicans?

Congressional Republicans maintained unity through most of this year, supporting the view that the president’s military surge launched in January was a proper shift in strategy and must be given a chance to work. After Bush’s veto in April of legislation seeking timelines for troop withdrawal, GOP lawmakers held together to block an override attempt by Democrats. But a group of Republican moderates began to speak out in May, meeting with Bush to convey their concerns about public opposition to the war. Party leaders also began to express unease, with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-OH) saying “by the time we get to September, October, members are going to want to know how well this [surge] is working, and if it isn’t, what’s plan B.” In September,  a progress report is due from the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and Congress is due to consider another funding request to pay for the Iraq war into 2008.

Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), one of two Republican senators to vote for troop withdrawal timelines, said differences between the White House and GOP lawmakers are likely to be more pronounced in the fall. “You’re starting to see trap doors and exit signs already with a number of Republicans,” he told CBS’ Face the Nation. Mann of the Brookings Institution says an increasing number of Republican lawmakers fear “falling into a small minority rather than a very strong and close minority. They see the sentiment of the country and they know how vulnerable they will be in 2008 if we’re still in a quagmire [in Iraq].” Republican senators are running for reelection next year in Minnesota, Maine, and New Hampshire, where there are strong antiwar views.

On the other hand, says CFR’s Roman, Republican lawmakers cannot afford to antagonize a core group of Republicans—about 30 percent—whom polls indicate still support Bush and the decision to invade Iraq. For now, the three leading Republican candidates for president—Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney—have expressed support for the war policy. McCain has been most outspoken about the importance of the surge for clearing and holding insurgent strongholds and rebuilding and stabilizing Iraq. Romney gave strong support for the war policy in the latest Republican debate but reports say he has indicated it may be necessary to review the effects of the surge in the coming months. Giuliani has spoken more often about the war on terrorism (LAT) than on specific Iraq policy.

What are the chances of a bipartisan Iraq policy emerging?

After his meeting with moderate Republicans, Bush for the first time indicated a willingness to consider benchmarks as part of a war-funding bill. Such benchmarks, as outlined in the Backgrounder, include Iraqi constitutional reforms and legislation to equitably share the country’s oil wealth. Democrats have said the inclusion of such conditions could be the basis for a compromise on war funding. A small but increasing number of Republican lawmakers are voicing support for embracing the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, chaired by former Republican Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton. Republican Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-VA) and Michael McCaul (R-TX) distributed a letter with Democratic Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO) calling for the implementation of the group’s recommendations, which include reducing U.S. political, military, and economic support if Iraqi leaders do not make suitable progress on reforms. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has also openly called for implementing the Baker-Hamilton report.

The Bush administration has taken cautious steps toward engaging Syria and Iran, two key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report, but no broader implementation of the report is expected. In the meantime, says CFR’s Beinart, “You shouldn’t expect the Democrats to go above and beyond in trying to compromise.” He adds: “They feel the political winds at their back. They are polling strong. The general view is the longer the debate on the Iraq war drags out, the better it is [politically for them]. They have an energized base.” Hagel, a potential presidential candidate, in an interview with urged his congressional colleagues to end their partisanship on Iraq.

“This should be a debate about the interests of our country,” he said. “This should be a debate about the future of foreign policy of America, about the interests of the Middle East, and the future of Iraq. That’s where the debate should reside, not a partisan debate.

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