James M. Lindsay, an expert on Congress and American foreign policy, says in the aftermath of the Democratic Party victories in the midterm elections, many politicians are hoping that the “knight in shining armor” to rescue the Iraq policy may lie in the special commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Lee Hamilton.
The commission “is going to issue a report sometime in the near future making some recommendations about Iraq policy. Many Democrats and probably more than a few Republicans are hoping that commission report will create a political cover for the administration to swallow hard, make some tough choices in Iraq and allow everybody to go away happy,” says Lindsay, former CFR vice president and director of studies who is now director of the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas.
The midterm elections were obviously a crushing vote against the president if you accept the fact that this was a kind of referendum on the way the Iraq war was being waged. What do you think the administration can now do about all of this?
Well, the elections have scrambled the political playing field in [Washington] D.C. and President Bush is, for the first time, going to face a Congress that the Republican Party does not control. The Republican Party is obviously very weakened and it’s going to create more problems for the president on the domestic front than on foreign affairs just by virtue of the fact that the president has much more flexibility in foreign affairs than he does in domestic affairs. And clearly, regardless of how the election went, the big issue was going to be Iraq and what do about Iraq. It’s clear American policy has not fared very well. All the news coming out of Iraq has suggested the trends are in the wrong direction. What last night’s elections are going to do is add to the criticism of the administration’s Iraq policy. The problem for both Republicans and Democrats is that there aren’t a lot of policy choices on how to handle Iraq.
That’s because the Democrats generally are not calling for an immediate pullout of troops. I guess the Democrats have to prepare for presidential and congressional elections in 2008. They don’t want to be accused of “cutting and running” on Iraq right?
There are several things that are operating here. One is that the Democratic Party itself is not united on a particular policy option for Iraq; there is considerable diversity within the party. Second, the members of the Democratic leadership are old enough and wise enough to remember what has happened in the past when parties have won and overreached on their mandate. Many Democrats may remember what happened to the Republicans when they rolled into power in Congress in 1994 and created many problems for themselves very early on by moving too aggressively on their agenda. And many Democrats can remember what happened in the early 1970s when the Vietnam War helped catapult Democrats into congressional seats, but then the Democrats actually hurt their party overall by creating a perception that the party was weak or soft on defense.
Congress can criticize, Congress can fund, Congress can provoke, but at the end of the day when it comes to troop deployment it’s going to be George Bush’s call to make.
One other thing that is going to constrain Democrats is their majorities are going to be small. Only about twenty-eight seats in the House and I guess really a two-seat majority in the U.S. Senate if the two remaining races pan out for them, which doesn’t leave the party a great deal of running room. What you’re likely to see going forward is a Congress which is able to investigate issues but is highly unlikely to be able to legislate. So don’t expect to see a replay of the early 1970s where the Democrats passed amendments to cut spending on the military in Southeast Asia. We’re not likely to see that story repeated.
And of course in Vietnam, the legislation to bar further U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia came after the troops were pulled out. But here we still have troops in Iraq and clearly Congress is not going to cut funding to the troops.
What you will likely see are Democrats using their committee chairs and the media to try to frame the debate to push the administration to make some tough choices. Now what many people hope is the “knight in shining armor” that’s going to ride to the rescue here is the Baker-Hamilton commission, which is going to issue a report sometime in the near future making some recommendations about Iraq policy. Many Democrats and probably more than a few Republicans are hoping that commission report will create a political cover for the administration to swallow hard, make some tough choices in Iraq and allow everybody to go away happy.
Of course, the real question is whether what Baker-Hamilton recommends is going to be at all palatable to the administration. George W. Bush remains president. Presidents have considerable leeway in foreign policy. Congress can criticize, Congress can fund, Congress can provoke, but at the end of the day when it comes to troop deployment it’s going to be George Bush’s call to make.
Now President Bush, when he was governor of Texas, saw himself as a conciliator and I know when he telephoned Speaker-of-the-House-to-be Nancy Pelosi this morning he said they have to cooperate. Do you think the White House will be putting forth a softer tone?
Bipartisanship is going to be the buzzword for the next several months. Both parties see as in their interest to be seen as trying to work across the aisle. The name of Bob Bullock, the former Democratic lieutenant governor of Texas, has been resurrected. He had that job when George W. Bush was the Republican governor. The two worked very closely and it didn’t take twenty-four hours for senior White House officials to start talking about the “Bullock model” of bipartisanship. There are actually some considerable incentives to turn those words into reality.
The Republican center of gravity, particularly on the House side, has shifted a little bit further to the right, which can make it harder for compromise to go ahead even if the White House is inclined to pursue that strategy.
One of the fascinating things about the election last night was that in some respects the House Democrats picked up seats that were in moderate districts with so-called Blue Dog Democrats [social and economic conservatives considered centrists in the party]. The second thing is that depending upon how the seats that are still being contested shake out, Democrats are only going to have about a twenty-five seat majority over Republicans. That means that if groups of Democrats decide to defect to the Republican Party, the Democratic agenda is stalled. I think there is going to be a great deal of incentive on the Democratic side to try to work across the aisle.
I would think that compromise would have to be pushed as far as it could go to get anything done.
It does, but here’s where desires sort of run up against technicalities of politics. Number one, it’s not clear whether the administration really is going to revert to the Bob Bullock model as opposed to the sort of hardball politics that George W. Bush has played in his first six years as president. The second thing is the question of what happens on the Republican side of the aisle. There is really potential for bloodletting—particularly in the House—over these losses. We’re already seeing Republicans starting to edge away from George W. Bush over the last several months. Now with Bush going into his final two years in office, there is the possibility that Republicans will be even more inclined to distance themselves from Bush.
Whereas the Democratic caucus in the House got a lot more conservative on Tuesday, the Republican caucus also got more conservative because the Republican seats that were lost tended to be liberal or moderate Republicans. The Republican center of gravity, particularly on the House side, has shifted a little bit further to the right, which can make it harder for compromise to go ahead even if the White House is inclined to pursue that strategy.
Now I would think one issue on which there would seem to be a consensus is the immigration issue, since Bush was rebuffed by the hard-line Republicans.
Immigration is the one issue that leaps to most people’s minds when they think of a place where the White House could work with the Democratic majority, but even there it may be more difficult because some of the Democrats who ran and were elected ran on issues of economic nationalism, which was not just a hostility to foreign goods but also a hostility to foreign labor. Again, this is all going to be played out on the backdrop of what’s going to happen in 2008, which complicates things considerably, but once you get beyond immigration it is difficult to find issues where the two parties can naturally come together.
And with no incumbent president everything is wide open come 2007 and 2008, right?
Well, certainly everything is open, and this is why one of the more interesting things to watch over the next several months is how this loss is interpreted in the Republican Party. Again, there are backbench Republicans who have argued all along that their party has lost its way and that it’s time to go back to fundamentals. A lot of what it will come back to is what’s going to happen in the next, let’s say, two to five days, as we try to make sense of what this election meant. There’s always a great desire for journalists to decide what elections mean, and going into it the common view was that this election was going to be all about Iraq.
Now when you look at the exit poll data, there seems to be a very large bloc of voters who said that corruption really bothered them. Social scientists will say “Look at how, historically, second-term presidents have done in their sixth year.” It turns out that presidents in their sixth year generally find their party suffers losses in the midterms. And indeed, if anything, George W. Bush could say “The losses on my watch in the sixth year are nowhere near as bad as previous sixth year presidents.” That’s the story that you’re going to probably hear from the White House. The problem is it may be true, but it’s not going to be terribly persuasive to people who will call this “the Iraq election.” But the problem it creates for everybody is the problem it creates for the Democratic Party. You spent the last several months telling us what the president has done wrong, but what are you going to do? That’s going to be quite a challenge for [Rep.] Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] and [Sen.] Harry Reid [D-NV], and I should note that Speaker Pelosi is going to not only be the first female speaker of the House of Representatives, but the highest-elected [female] official in American history.
If the president called you up today and said, "What’s the one thing I should do?" Do you have a suggestion?
He’s already done the one thing he must do, which is to be seen actively trying to be gracious about Republican losses and extending a hand to Democrats. He’s done the first thing he needs to do. The real question for the president is what policy steps should he take? Probably the best advice is to find some way to work with the results of the Baker-Hamilton commission. If the president’s goal is to sort of minimize discord, this may be the moment in which everybody can lock arms and agree on a policy. The problem with that is even though the American political leadership may rally around a policy option, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work or that the results will be terribly appealing; and again as you look at Iraq, it’s hard to say there is a really good option. It’s more a matter of choosing among bad options and trying to determine which choice is going to allow you get out with the least amount of harm and damage.
What do you think of the naming of Robert Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary?
Secretary Rumsfeld’s departure from the administration is surprising, especially in its timing. The administration—and the Republican Party’s congressional candidates—would have benefited more politically if the decision had been made several months ago. The political payoff of today’s announcement is far less, especially given that in recent weeks the President has staunchly defended Secretary Rumsfeld’s performance. And with the secretary gone, President Bush will have one less lightning rod to deflect criticism from his own performance.