Some 40 years ago, Republican conservatives began a long march out of the wilderness, building up a powerful political movement. Now, that march has ground to a halt in the sands of Iraq. Who would have imagined only three years ago that the toppling of Saddams statue in Baghdad would lead to the toppling of the Republican colossus on Capitol Hill?
Yet even as they survey the damage, George W. Bush and Karl Rove must see that, ironically, large Democratic gains in Congress could actually give the administration a handle on finding a way out of the mess in Iraq. After all its other bungles, it is not clear whether the White House will be shrewd enough to grasp it, but the handle is clearly there. There is even opportunity here for Democrats, toothat is, if they are more interested in building their long-term future than in squandering their short-term victories.
It has been apparent for months that the administrations Plan A for Iraq is not working. As early as Labor Day, it was an open secret in Washington that the White House was in a holding pattern, waiting until after the elections to come up with Plan B. The surprise is that this time, the administration couldnt keep a secret. Well before the elections, the press began focusing on James Bakers Iraq Study Group, which is conveniently scheduled to report its recommendations after the polls close, as the vehicle for Bush to change direction. Just as Lyndon Johnson dispatched Robert McNamara and brought in Washington wizard Clark Clifford when Plan A failed in Vietnam, so too, it was speculated, Bush might bid farewell to the architect of his Plan A, Donald Rumsfeld, and bring in the Houdini of contemporary statecraft, Baker, to run Plan B.
The second big problem for Plan B has always been the political one: How the devil does this White House persuade a disillusioned and angry public to give it one more chance in Iraq? Why would anybody possibly trust these folks to get it right the second time, after they got it so wrong before? Thats where the potential Democratic victories in this election come in.
President Bush would now have an opportunity to say to the public: My fellow Americans, I have always believed in the wisdom of the people. You were the ones who first gave me a chance to become your president and by your overwhelming vote, you returned me to this office. Now, in your wisdom, you have spoken againthis time to send a clear message that you want a change of course in Iraq. You have sent many new Democrats here to Washington to carry that message for you.
I have heard you loud and clear and I respect what you say. Therefore, I am embarking tonight on a serious re-evaluation of our policies in Iraq and I am asking Democrats in Congress to join me in shaping that policy. Over the next month, I will ask the Democratic leadership in Congress, along with the Republican leadership, to sit down with me and my team at least once a week to hammer out a new, bipartisan approach that the country can rally behind. I am asking Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton, the Republican and Democratic co-chairs of the Iraq Study Group, to offer their recommendations, with an outside perspective, so that we can hear all voices and work together on a new, effective Iraq strategy.
It is clear now that we cannot just stay on the same course, and I believe it would be equally fatal to leave immediately. So, I would ask that both of those options be off the table. Let us instead, together, come up with a new plan that has a chance of success; let us also put in place a new team to carry out that plana team that will enjoy the respect and confidence of people on both sides of the aisle.
Could Bush pull that off politically? Its a long shot in an atmosphere so poisoned, but its also the best shot he has. Remember that even though Americans have become increasingly opposed to the war, a steady plurality has held that we ought to stay long enough to finish the job. Even though voters seem inclined to pull the lever for Democrats, they may not be quite ready to pull the plug in Baghdad. Talking with various groups across the country this fall, my sense is that most people think the outcome in Iraq is very important, and they would be willing to give the administration one more chance to get it rightso long as the plan is well-conceived and isnt shoved down our throats.
Thats why Democratic co-authorship of Plan B would be invaluable for the president. Theres a sound precedent: One year after Democrats lost control of Congress in 1946 in a Republican tidal wave, a beleaguered Harry Truman desperately wanted to provide economic assistance to war-torn Europe. To win support in Congress and in the country, Truman ensured that his economic blueprint wasnt named after himthat honor went to George Marshalland invited key Republicans like Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, to help write the policy. Vandenberg was not only one of the Marshall Plans major architects, but his backing helped give it the political support it needed for passage. President Bush, please take note.
But why would Democrats want to play along with Bush, and be left with the tar of Iraq on their hands? Because sometimes the country faces challenges so important that the best politics in the long run is to be constructive patriots in the short runto ignore the siren song of partisanship, and look after the nations needs. If Bush were to be man enough to ask the Democrats to join him and they rejected him, they might score quick points with their base. Over time, however, they would rightly be seen as narrow-minded, entrenched partisans who no more deserve the mantle of the nations trust than those they seek to displace. It is an old truism, still true, that the best policy makes the best politics. Maybe, then, Democratic victories could provide the best hope for finding a good way out of Iraq.