Monday, October 23, 2006

Linking Iraq to the War on Terror Has Downside for GOP

By Stuart Rothenberg

President Bush and his allies have spent months trying to drum up support for the administration’s Iraq policies by arguing that the Iraq War isn’t merely an isolated battle but rather the front line in a much larger war against terrorism.

Of course, that’s not a new strategy. They did the same thing leading up to the 2004 presidential election, and they apparently succeeded, because exit polls showed a narrow majority of Americans saw Iraq as part of the fight against terrorism. The president won a second term because of that fight.

This year, it’s fashionable to believe the link between those two “wars” has been severed in the public’s mind. After all, a clear majority of Americans now tell pollsters they think the Iraq War is a mistake, even though they support the war against terror.

My view is somewhat different. I believe the president has achieved what he wanted to achieve all along — to have Americans see Iraq as part of the larger American effort against terror — but he failed to understand that U.S. military and policy failures in Iraq could cause Americans to see the war on terror as failing as well.

Consider what we all have been witnessing in Iraq: a growing number of U.S. casualties and fatalities; increased reports of violence and anti-Americanism; ineffectiveness on the part of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government; and little or no progress toward the establishment of a stable Iraqi government that can overcome sectarian loyalties and make progress toward a sustainable democracy.

It’s no wonder Americans give the president increasingly poor grades on his handling of the war on terror. By Bush’s own standard, the front line of the war against terror — his Iraq policy — has been considerably less than successful.

“They have destroyed their great numbers on the war against terror by linking it to Iraq,” one GOP observer I talked with recently commented.

While it is true that the public gives the president somewhat higher marks for handling the war on terror than for handling the Iraq War, the gap between the two has been shrinking.

Of course, the war on terrorism includes more than the Iraq War; it involves uncovering plots, apprehending potential terrorists, stopping the flow of money to terrorist groups and more. On some of those fronts, the administration has clearly been successful, and some Americans give the president credit for those successes. But in Iraq, and increasingly in the other military theater, Afghanistan, U.S. policy certainly appears flawed.

For Republicans, the virtual elimination of the war on terror as an effective political issue is a disaster, since it has been the party’s ace in the hole.

Anyone who has watched the day-to-day arguments in races around the country has no choice but to come to the conclusion that Republican candidates have few issues at their disposal except the personal warts of their Democratic opponents.

In a number of races, including the Senate contests in Virginia and Montana, Republican incumbents apparently have adopted the worn-out strategy of longtime Republican consultant Arthur Finkelstein: Call your opponent a liberal as long and as loudly as you can, and eventually the voters will agree.

Well, this year that simply isn’t working. It’s hard to paint former Navy Secretary Jim Webb as a liberal, especially since he doesn’t have a legislative record, and Montana Democrat Jon Tester looks more like a farmer with a buzz cut (which he is) than a liberal.

And given the Bush administration’s performance in Iraq, Congress’ handling of Social Security and immigration and the number of GOP officeholders who are headed for jail or who have been totally discredited, voters don’t much care about buzzwords being thrown around by Republican strategists and candidates.

In Virginia, one television ad for Sen. George Allen (R) shows challenger Webb with Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and John Kerry (Mass.). For many Republicans, those are still scary images. The only question is whether they are scarier than Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) right now.

I’m not suggesting that Republican consultants deserve most of the blame for the lack of issues to use against Democrats this cycle. Rather, the fault rests with the White House and with some Republicans on Capitol Hill, who fumbled Social Security, immigration, ethics and lobbying reform and, most importantly, the Iraq War.

But the lack of issues can’t be ignored, and it helps explain why Republicans have been unable to drive a wedge between voters and Democrats this election year.

Democrats also deserve credit for finally addressing some of the problems that they created for themselves over the past 35 years.

For at least the past two years, their leaders have not passed up the chance to reiterate their support for the war against terror, thereby going a long way toward neutralizing the GOP’s advantage on national security.

To a great extent, they repositioned themselves on national security and defense the way Republicans once did when they turned around education by emphasizing reform, rather than the GOP’s previous rhetoric of calling for the elimination of the Department of Education.

So now, Democrats have some newfound credibility on national security. Let’s see what they do with it over the next couple of years.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 19, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.