“Given the deteriorating situation, it is clear at this point that we cannot, through putting in more troops or maintaining the presence that we have, expect that somehow the situation is going to improve, and we have to do something significant to break the pattern that we’ve been in right now,” Mr. Obama told audiences as the midterms approached.
The president continued to defer to his commanders on the ground, including Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the man in charge in Iraq. “General Casey will make the decision as to how many troops we have there,” the president said. “I’ve told him this. I said, ‘You decide, general.’”
On the eve of the 2006 elections that would rout Republicans everywhere, Mr. Bush pledged to stand by the deeply unpopular Mr. Rumsfeld. He could stay as defense secretary for the length of his term as president, Mr. Bush declared.
Then the voters spoke, handing Mr. Bush the most damaging loss of his presidency and opening his eyes to change.
‘A new idea’
The Republican losses would lead inexorably to the surge. Mr. Rumsfeld resigned, and key men in uniform, like Gen. Casey, who for years had assured the administration he had enough troops at hand, were pushed aside.
“The irony of ironies, in my opinion, is that if the Republicans had not lost in 2006, the House and the Senate,” Mr. Graham said. “I doubt Secretary Rumsfeld would have ever been replaced, and when he left it gave an opening to a new idea.”
As the long run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign approached, Mr. McCain redoubled his support for the surge. This time, he would have the president’s undivided attention after the midterm defeat that Mr. Bush himself called “a thumpin’.”
Mr. McCain planned his fourth trip to Iraq in December 2006, and spent the early part of the month persuading Mr. Bush to accept the necessity of sending more troops. He met the president at the White House on Dec. 6, the day that the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, a distinguished panel of politicians and diplomats led by James A. Baker III, secretary of state during the administration of Mr. Bush’s father, and Lee H. Hamilton, the widely respected former Democratic congressman from Indiana, delivered a report urging Mr. Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the beginning of 2008. The alternative was “a slide into chaos.”
Republicans were stunned. Many panicked. Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, who had been an early and strong supporter of the war effort, joined Democratic critics to explore the idea of mandating a withdrawal from Iraq.
“They thought Iraq was the death blow to the Republican Party,” Mr. Graham recalled. “So you had a group of different Republicans coming up with different plans that had the same result. We would begin to end combat operations and pull out.”
Mr. McCain saw retreat as defeat. He turned to two of his closest friends, Mr. Graham and Sen. Joe Lieberman, to devise a strategy to push aside Pentagon critics of the surge, to convince the president that the surge was the right strategy and finally to thwart efforts to force a congressional vote on a troop withdrawal, which Democrats might win.
“I think John’s finest moment, and in many ways mine and Senator Lieberman’s, was to stop the stampede of Republicans who wanted to find ways out of Iraq,” Mr. Graham said.
Mr. McCain, leading in the early Republican presidential polls for the 2008 nomination, used his celebrity in front of the camera to make a case for the new strategy and to buck up demoralized Republicans. Blocking a Senate vote on withdrawal was crucial.
The conservative American Enterprise Institute sent a draft report to Mr. McCain from its own panel, dubbed the Iraq Planning Group. Unlike the Baker-Hamilton group, the AEI plan mirrored Mr. McCain’s, calling for more troops in Iraq.