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Staying the course poses huge risk for Republicans
San Francisco Chronicle


July 13, 2007
Friday PM

WASHINGTON -- Facing rock-bottom poll numbers and the judgment of history, President Bush has little to lose politically in using the last 18 months of his presidency to try to prove critics of his war policy wrong.

The president followed that path Thursday, finding promise in a "young democracy" in Iraq despite descriptions by his own administration of a deeply fractured society.

The rest of his Republican Party, however, is looking at something entirely different: elections for the House, Senate and the presidency that, absent a miraculous turnaround in Iraq or a suicidal stumble by Democrats, are headed for a debacle.

Republicans are watching their private poll numbers plunge, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"They just simply cannot let the status quo continue for much longer, or they are cooked gooses," he said. Unless things change by November 2008, he predicted, Republicans will "lose seats in both houses, and even the weakest of the major Democrats, probably Hillary Clinton, will win" the presidency.

The poll landscape shows "Republicans who ought to be completely secure that are maybe in the upper 40s, low 50s," Sabato said, "and then you have the weaker ones ... being blown away in landslides."

As the Senate debated and the House passed another troop-withdrawal plan on Thursday, Bush saw cause for optimism in an interim report by his National Security Council that showed mixed military results from the surge of 30,000 troops to Baghdad and surrounding provinces. But the report showed scant progress on the political reconciliation that Bush said is the goal of the troop increase and "essential to lasting security and stability" in Iraq.

Bush said political progress is a "lagging indicator" that would improve only after military stability has been achieved. He also praised the "bottom-up reconciliation" that relies on local, not national, leaders, modeled on the Sunni tribal sheikhs of Anbar province who have joined U.S. forces against the Sunni terrorists who call themselves al Qaeda in Iraq.

Bush acknowledged that he worried "whether or not the American people are in this fight." But he said the full troop increase has been in place only for a month and he would wait until a final report in September by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to judge its progress.

Jim Pinkerton, a top political aide to President George H.W. Bush's administration, now at the center-left New America Foundation, said the president might be "the only one in Washington who still talks the language of 'freedom changes people.' The neocons have given up on that, the neocons have become in their own way realists -- the Arabs and especially the Iranians are the enemy. And we have to fight them. And Bush is still talking the language of 'no, we're going to transform the world through democracy.' "

"As he said in the past, 'If it's just Laura and Barney who are sticking with me, I'm going to do this,' " Pinkerton said of the president's view of Iraq. "I wouldn't at all be surprised if we're in a situation extremely similar to what we see now on Jan. 20, 2009."

Democrats have expressed rising outrage and astonishment at what they call Bush's refusal to face reality and have said the only thing likely to change between now and mid-September is that more American troops will die in a war that is in its fifth year.

"The president has his head in the sand," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "The Iraqis have not met a single of the 18 benchmarks we laid out, and yet this president has the audacity to ask for more patience while our troops are getting killed every day policing a civil war."

Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, defeated by Bush in 2004, said the Iraqi government has shown no indication it can unify the country.

"No general, no administration official has come to us ... in our secret briefings and said this is a winning strategy," Kerry said. "What we have is a hope, a wing and a prayer that somehow these Iraqis are going to come together and make some decisions."

Republicans have so far largely stuck with Bush on major votes and many defend the war despite its cost of more than 3,600 American lives and $500 billion. Democrats remain four votes short of the 60 senators needed to break the procedural hurdles in the Senate and gain approval of legislation setting dates to withdraw American forces from Iraq.

Pinkerton believes Bush knows he can hang on because no one wants to be tagged with losing the war.

"What the Dick Lugar, Pete Domenici-type Republicans and the Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer-type Democrats would love, is some sort of bipartisan deal that backs us out of Iraq, even if we lose, because then it would be bipartisan and nobody will get blamed," Pinkerton said, referring to two prominent Senate Republicans who have broken with Bush on Iraq and the Democratic House speaker and majority leader. "But that bipartisanship has to include Bush."

Lugar, of Indiana, and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., are working on a measure calling for a change in the U.S. force posture and mission in Iraq.

A clearly frustrated Warner said the interim report showed the Iraqi government "is simply not providing leadership worthy of the considerable sacrifice of our forces, and this has to change immediately."

House Republicans remained unified behind Bush, though GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio called the waverers "wimps" in a closed-door caucus.

Boehner on Thursday slammed Democrats for undercutting the military with another withdrawal vote.

"To just pull the rug out on Gen. Petraeus ... is absolutely the most negligent action yet I've seen the House take on this issue," Boehner said.

The House voted 223-201 for the proposal to begin withdrawing troops within 120 days and pull out all American combat forces by April 2008 except those charged with hunting terrorists, defending the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and training Iraqi forces. The bill is similar to a measure Democrats hope to push to a vote in the Senate next week, although neither is likely to override a promised Bush veto.

But Pelosi promised to keep forcing votes to end the war "until pressure from the American people causes the president to change his mind and change his policy."

Bruce Schulman, a political historian at Boston University, said support for the war remains in the South, a GOP stronghold. Republicans "don't want to admit that it's a failure; that's the dynamic here. They don't want to take responsibility for losing."

"As a historian, I can't help but draw a comparison with the Johnson and Nixon administrations," Schulman said. "They were constantly trotting out new initiatives, more troops, more bombings, expanding the conflict to nearby countries, asking to give it time to turn around. It didn't -- and the same kind of process is at work here."


San Francisco Chronicle Washington bureau writer Edward Epstein contributed to this report.
E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at clochhead(at)
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Scripps Howard News Service,


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