Huggy-Bear McCain has proved a more nettlesome
opponent to Bush than the Dems
A little over a year ago, my then-weekly appearance on CNN International happened to coincide with President Bush’s inauguration, so I found myself in the unusual position of having to play pundit on Washington politics. I remember the anchor suggesting that the fact that the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the White House meant that Bush would have unprecedented freedom to ram through his agenda. I disagreed, pointing out that the locus of opposition to Bush would now shift to the ten or so moderate Republicans in the Senate who were plainly unhappy with the direction in which Bush was taking their party, and many of whom had openly questioned his Iraq policy (at various points, Hagel, Lugar, Warner, McCain) or aspects of his domestic policy (Specter, Snowe, Collins and others). They would find themselves, improbable as it may have seemed, holding disproportionate influence in a very finely balanced legislature.
Even though the signs were there a year ago, I’ve certainly been shocked by the speed of Bush’s domestic political decline, or the intensity of the resistance he’s faced from within the GOP. By year’s end, Bush was recording defeat after defeat, and sometimes on key issues — failing to get the Patriot Act renewed; being forced by McCain to back down on torture; failing to get his White House counsel appointed to the Supreme Court; scolded by a key conservative Republican-appointed judge on the handling of the Jose Padilla case; and most recently, facing the prospect of Capitol Hill hearings, arranged by Republican judiciary committee chair Arlen Specter, into his decision to order the NSA to bypass the established legal system to conduct domestic eavesdropping. We could go on and on, with Karl Rove, various budget setbacks, Michael Brown and Katrina, and so on.
Although most of these wounds have been self-inflicted, I suspect the thoughtful Republican realists in the Senate (and in the military, intelligence services and State Department) have recognized that Iraq symbolizes Bush’s catastrophic stewardship of U.S. national interests on the global scale. Not only has the idea of projecting force into the heart of the Middle East with the aim of transforming its politics along lines desired by Washington been a disaster — even the elections the administration so proudly touts portend civil war and an entrenchment of the insurgency — the U.S. appears to have lost any prospect of securing short-term tactical advantages from its occupation (access to Iraqi oil reserves; long-term military bases from which force can be projected throughout the region). And in the process the U.S. has squandered the deterrent power of its military by showing the limits of its capacity to sustain an occupation, emboldening the likes of Iran — which, curiously enough, ends up holding the key to the U.S. exit strategy by virtue of its influence with the Shiite parties that appear to have again prevailed at the polls. And the failure of the invasion to vindicate a universally unpopular decision to invade (by either turning up weapons of mass destruction, or by producing a more, not less stable region) have accelerated the decline of U.S. leadership over its traditional allies. The whole episode has made it possible for allies to say no to Washington, and then to cluck in smug sympathy while conspicuously avoiding saying “told you so.”
Iraq, overwhelmingly unpopular abroad and increasingly so at home, stands at the center of Bush’s decline — the fact that his agenda is collapsing despite his party’s control over all the levers of government is a sure sign that the sober Republicans who may have long doubted the wisdom of Bush’s choices are now no longer remaining silent. The irony is that they appear to be more inclined than the Democrats have been to distance themselves from Bush, and to challenge him directly on matters of national security. The Democrats are still flailing about unable to take a coherent position on Iraq (with a few honorable exceptions). Listen to John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, and you hear an often incomprehensible excercise in self-congratulatory political ju-jitsu — they’re quite simply not prepared to challenge the basics, which leaves them to argue that they would have invaded Iraq, but done it “properly” — more troops, more allies, that sort of thing. Frankly, that’s the same unprincipled, politically cowardly doggerel we’ve heard from them all along, and is ultimately so indistinguishable from the administration’s own positions that it simply make the Dems sound petty and partisan. There was no way to get more allies on board for the operation for the simple reason that most of the world believed there was no good reason to invade Iraq, and they wouldn’t have followed Hillary or Kerry or even Bill into that quagmire any more readily than they followed Bush. More troops? I don’t think the U.S. has enough combat troops to sustain an occupation force much larger than the one they currently have there. And the bottom line is that the Iraqis would certainly not have been any less inclined to resist an occupation designed by a Kerry or Clinton administration than the one designed by Bush.
So no matter how bad it gets for Bush with his own party, I’m not convinced that the Democrats are going to manage to make the Republicans pay a significant price at the polls in November’s mid-term elections.