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Will Iraq Still Dominate in 2008?

Karl Rove on the South Lawn of the White House last month, a few days before his retirement. (AP).

There's little question Iraq is the defining political issue of 2007. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found it to be far and away the number one issue among voters, with 35 percent of American adults saying it is the single most important issue in their choice for president, almost three times the next big issue, health care.

But will Iraq be the big issue in the election year of 2008, as many Democratic candidates at all levels expect?
That assumption is being challenged in some quarters, not least by Karl Rove, the former top political adviser for President Bush. In a little noticed talk this past summer at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Rove predicted that Iraq is "likely not to be the dominant issue" next year, largely because he thinks the Democratic nominee may well want to tone down the issue next year

"You don't want to to be in a place where on January 21, if you're a Democrat and you get elected, you face one of two options," Rove said, according to a transcript on the Aspen Institute website.

"You bring them home precipitously and everybody, virtually everybody, agrees the country descends to chaos, and that's on your watch. keep them there in a reasonable configuration, redeployed, and in which case a large part of your party is angry with you."

As one of the key promoters of the existing Bush Iraq policy, widely considered a failure by the electorate, Rove certainly has a vested interest in making this case. (And remember that Rove has contended that Iraq was a secondary factor in the 2006 GOP election debacle, placing more emphasis on issues like congressional corruption--a point of view widely dismissed by other political analysts and pollsters.) But a similar argument came recently from a different end of the GOP, from someone who has been more deeply skeptical of the entire Iraq venture, former State Department policy planning chief, Richard N. Haass.

In an interview posted last week on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations, of which he is now president, Haass argues that while Iraq will certainly form a backdrop to the presidential campaign, it will lose some salience as as issue next year. His basic logic: Bush has co-opted the "bring the troops home" argument with his plan to pull five combat brigades out of Iraq by next summer. While Democrats complain that will only bring troop levels down to "pre-surge" levels, Haass is suggesting, most Americans won't really care now that the trajectory is downwards.

"Even a lot of the Democrats who opposed the policy aren't calling for total withdrawal. If you deconstruct their position, a lot of them are talking about residual forces in certain places for certain missions," Haass said. "So essentially now we are talking about the pace of drawdown and the size and the role of the residual force. That to me is an "inside-the-Beltway" debate."

But Democrats see this argument as so much baloney. Celinda Lake, the pollster for Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), pointed out that in the last week, many of the top GOP presidential candidates went after the Democrats on Iraq (suggesting that they were trying to pull the rug out on the troops just as progress is being made.) That only suggests to her that the eventual GOP nominee will want to sharpen those distinctions next year, making the issue just as salient.

"The voters are too focused on Iraq. I don't think it will be in good shape. And the disgust among voters is so palpable," Lake said. Plus, she added, echoing one of her client's points, there is a "sense that we can't get anything going in this country until we are out of Iraq."
"It's the boulder in the road," she said. "We have no money for for anything else."

Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.), one of the architects of the Democratic House takeover last year, said how much Iraq matters next year is very much dependent on the conditions on the ground (a position actually shared by some of the neocons who promoted the war.) "The politics surrounding the Iraq issue does not follow troop levels - it follows the stability of the country," he said. " Whether there are 80,000, 100,000, or 120,000 American troops in Iraq on Election Day doesn't matter. It's whether the country is stable that matters."

And Democrats are plainly skeptical that things will turn around sharply enough to take the issue off the table for Republicans. Indeed some believe it will get worse again as Bush removes the extra troops that have helped put a lid on the violence in the last few months. "I think it is impossible to imagine Iraq not playing a major role in the campaign next year," said Kurt Campbell, CEO of the Center for a New American Security, a new centrist think tank.
Haass, by contrast, thinks that voters already expect the situation to remain violent and dangerous in Iraq--so they won't punish politicians if it remains that way. "Iraq will almost certainly be a messy place in six months or 12 months," he said in an interview yesterday with The Post. "The political marketplace has discounted that."

Indeed, Republicans are also taking heart this days in polling data suggesting some increase in optimism about the war--even as it remains overall unpopular. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, for instance, found some uptick this week in the public outlook about the war, with more people seeing signs that progress is being made towards military goals. Most Americans who have heard of the report of Gen. David H. Petraeus said they approved of his recommendations to begin withdrawing troops, Pew said.

Haass sees a useful comparison in the 1972 election, when Richard M. Nixon has already begun the so-called process of "Vietnamization"--turning the war over to the Saigon government. In that campaign, he notes, the war was not the decisive factor. "If it had been, Nixon never would have won because the war was clearly unpopular at the time," he said.

Only Election Day 2008 will tell whether Rove and Haass are correct. But their predictions are a useful reminder that politics is a dynamic process, and what might seem incontrovertibly true today could be dead wrong a year from now. As my colleague Jennifer Agiesta pointed out in a blog post last week , the economy was the focal point of the campaign in Sept. 2003, but by the time Election Day 2004 rolled around, it was supplanted by terrorism. Even now, it seems, the economy appears more likely to play a bigger role in next year's campaign than may have seemed the case just three months ago.

Indeed, how the issue mix shifts--or does not shift--in the next year could well determine which party controls the White House come Inauguration Day 2009.

----Michael Abramowitz

By Washington Post editors  |  September 20, 2007; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Morning Cheat Sheet  
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What may, at election time, overwhel;m present concern for surge or draw down issues in Iraq is the likely intensification of tension with Iran, even an explosion over some minor, but emotionally exploitable, incident. A wise initiative under these circumstances should be full bore negotiations with Iran, includung a table adorned with acceptance of their nuclear energy goal, of course, importantly paired with complete intrusive access for elBharadai's IAEA Inspectors to bar weaponization. age

Posted by: alvedge | September 21, 2007 9:30 PM | Report abuse

Just because Karl Rove has a long record of evildoing does not mean that he is always wrong. He has accurately described the fix that our next president will be in, come about February 2009.

Of course, some folks may still remember whose idea it originally was to put our country*s manhood into the Iraq wringer.

Posted by: cwh2 | September 21, 2007 12:11 AM | Report abuse

"That assumption is being challenged in some quarters, not least by Karl Rove"

Oh lordy, beltway reporters never cease to amaze me. Just because Rove said something doesn't mean it's likely, or even possible.

The albatross is around the neck, and it ain't coming off.

Posted by: abenson2 | September 20, 2007 10:26 PM | Report abuse

immigration will be decider and the dems are on the wrong side of the american people.

Posted by: 12thgenamerican | September 20, 2007 8:06 PM | Report abuse

Regarding comparisons to 1972, weren't most US troops out by the 1972 election? That's hardly going to be the case this time.

Posted by: newageblues | September 20, 2007 7:34 PM | Report abuse

I cannot imagine a topic that will replace Iraq in the voters mind. Regardless of Karl Rove's political skills, it is going to take a big eraser to remove the mess called Iraq from people's minds. If the republicans keep up the good work evident in their votes the past couple of days they will be negated as candidates before the elections even start.

Posted by: sbarkley | September 20, 2007 4:13 PM | Report abuse

"In a little noticed talk this past summer at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Rove predicted that Iraq is "likely not to be the dominant issue" next year...

Yeah, "little noticed" because:

1) His assertion is so unlikely that it's very, very funny.

2) This was simply Rove's way of telling Republicans to try to change the subject, and not an actual prediction of what will happen if things continue the way they are going.

Posted by: mobedda | September 20, 2007 4:00 PM | Report abuse

I strongly believe that our Iraq war ill dominate in 2008, because it is a very big issue for Americans.

As our Hon'ble president has shown no indication that he would consider a timetable for redeploying our troops from Iraq. I also believe that American policies in Iraq are the main cause of that countrie's violence and insecurity, and withdrawal of foreign forces is the first step to ending the countrie's discord. MAY GOD BLESS AMERICA.

Posted by: akber_kassam | September 20, 2007 2:51 PM | Report abuse

hmmm...didn't notice that this article had anything at all to do with immigration - go grind your ax somwhere else

Posted by: johndunsmore | September 20, 2007 2:28 PM | Report abuse

The war in Iraq will still be an important issue, but the domestic economy is likely to compete for top billing in the 2008 election.

After the housing market muddles along for another 6 months & the price of oil keeps rising, we'll hear more about the middle class squeeze.

The ghost of Ross Perot is waiting in the wings...

Posted by: bsimon | September 20, 2007 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Well I believe Iraq is no doubt always going to be one of the top issues in this country for a looooong time. When our country has people over in another country dieing for something that doesn't seem right, American's will always care.

Posted by: ffx4good | September 20, 2007 1:37 PM | Report abuse

"You don't want to to be in a place where on January 21, if you're a Democrat and you get elected, you face one of two options," Rove said, according to a transcript...

"You bring them home precipitously and everybody, virtually everybody, agrees the country descends to chaos, and that's on your watch. keep them there in a reasonable configuration, redeployed, and in which case a large part of your party is angry with you."

Well what do you know, public admission to the political trap laid for the next president by the Republican party. Rove sure knows how to play the political process, pity it's to the detriment of the country.

Posted by: EuroAm | September 20, 2007 12:54 PM | Report abuse



After an enormous uproar from the American People stopped the huge amnesty bill S. 1639 this year, its unscrupulous proponents are trying to slip bits and pieces of it into the Department of Defense authorization bill. If they succeed in all their efforts, this betraying exercise in stealth will give them most of the outrageous elements of the "comprehensive" immigration bill that American rejected.

The main thrust of this plan is to add the DREAM Act amnesty (SA 2919), as an amendment to the Defense funding bill in the Senate. Ostensibly, this is just an amnesty to provide in-state tuition to illegal aliens who entered the country before they were 16, but since no documentation is required, virtually all the millions of illegal aliens in this country could claim eligibility.

The other two components of the plan are:

*Increase the number of H-2B non-agricultural seasonal visas. These visas deny jobs to, and depress wages for, low-skilled Americans--our own working poor. There is no system to guarantee that these "temporary" workers would ever leave. Much of the current illegal alien population arrived on temporary visas and then refused to leave when the visas expired.

*Increase the number of "hi-tech" H-1B visas. The SKIL Act would increase the figure from 65,000 to 115,000 in the first year and another 20 percent the following year. This expansion will make it even easier for U.S. employers to import cheap foreign workers and displace American workers!


It requires another public outcry to stop this amnesty. Let your Senators know that you do not want to see the Defense bill hijacked with these amendments.


Sellout Senator Dick Durbin is backing up a bit. He is pulling back his first amendment (SA 2237) and submitting a new Dream Act Amendment (SA 2919)

While the text of this new amendment is unavailable, DC sources tell us that he is pulling out the In-State tuition for illegals language and setting an age cap on the Amnesty at 30 years of age. He is leaving in the language about 2 years in the military to qualify to keep this amendment Germane to the defense spending bill.

If we can push a little harder today, we could delay this move.

A delay will be to our favor because it will give us more time to notify the American public so they can respond!

Posted by: calumonit | September 20, 2007 12:00 PM | Report abuse

There predictions are more of a useful reminder about the never ending credulousness of Washington reporters. Rove is blowing the same smoke he was when he ran around the country predicting the Republicans would hold the House and Senate in 2006.

Rove is a has-been, he'd be better served working on the memoirs and trying to find others to share the blame for this pathetic Presidency.

Posted by: sfmandrew | September 20, 2007 9:35 AM | Report abuse

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