Will Iraq Still Dominate in 2008?
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. Or...you 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.
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