Republicans appear convinced they are benefiting from the debate in Congress over Iraq, even though the war continues to divide the country and depress President Bush’s approval rating.
“Republicans want people to be asked to make a choice between what President Bush is doing now and what the Democrats would do,” said Republican strategist Grover Norquist.
“It’s like the old joke lines: `How’s your wife? Compared to what?’ By comparison, Murtha and Kerry make Bush look good,” said Mr. Norquist.
Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, and Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, are outspoken proponents of resolutions to get U.S. troops out of Iraq, which strategists say has allowed Republicans to portray Democrats as the “cut-and-run” party.
“No question, the strategy Republicans are following forces the Democrats to confront the reality of what it means to be critical of the war effort, to say what their alternative is — to set a date certain for withdrawal, to conduct the war differently,” said Republican consultant Bob Heckman.
The strategy also puts the Democrats at a generic disadvantage similar to the one the Republicans had when Mr. Bush proposed reforming Social Security.
“I’m not sure the Democrats have great credibility on how to conduct a war,” said Mr. Heckman.
“One problem with Social Security reform is that people didn’t trust Republicans to reform a program that Republicans never liked in the first place, just as the public perceives the Democrats as not being enthusiastic about the use of American force abroad. The public doesn’t trust the Democrats to use that force properly.”
Republican strategist Jeff Bell said Republican lawmakers have shown a remarkably disciplined adherence to Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman’s year-old plan to prevent Democrats from turning the 2006 elections into a referendum on the president and the war.
Mr. Mehlman’s called for Republicans to make the topic of Iraq a choice between the president’s goals of a stable, democratic Iraq that is not a training ground for terrorists, versus policy alternatives that Democrats should be encouraged or maneuvered into stating.
Mr. Bell said House Republicans were following the Mehlman strategy when they offered a symbolic resolution supporting the presidents’ goals in Iraq and rejecting a troop withdrawal timetable last week. Almost all House Republicans voted yes. While 42 Democrats also voted yes, the rest voted no.
“Republicans looked united behind the president and a positive outcome in Iraq, while the Democrats looked divided, with retreat as their only goal,” said Mr. Bell.
Mr. Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran, led the opposition to the nonbinding resolution.
Also last week in the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, took Mr. Kerry’s plan for troop withdrawal, which was still being negotiated among Democratic leaders, and pushed it for an immediate floor vote.
Only six Democrats voted for it — as the nightly news and the next day’s headlines reported.
Mr. Kerry, who is considering a second presidential bid for 2008, dismissed the move as a parliamentary game and tried again this week with a resolution to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by July 2007.
“Republicans are amused that Senator Kerry is taking the lead to highlight the split in the opposition party. His role as the ‘waffle man’ on Iraq [Mr. Kerry voted for the war resolution Mr. Bush sought in 2002] reminds people that Democrats lack a plan on Iraq and on the war on terror worldwide,” Republican political consultant Scott Reed said.
Democrats were pushed into defending the resolutions, the Republican strategists said.
“It’s not a cut-and-run strategy,” said Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, who co-authored a measure calling for phased troop withdrawal to start by Dec. 31.
“It does not set a fixed timetable or an arbitrary deadline for the redeployment of our troops. We believe it represents where a majority of our caucus is.”
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other party leaders say the votes show that Republicans are blindly following a stay-the-course strategy.
Democrats also accused their counterparts of politicizing the war in the two weeks of debate staged by Republicans.
With nearly six months until the midterm elections, it’s unclear what impact the recent war debate will have. Polls contain contradictory findings both parties are trying to exploit.
A recent Pew Research Center survey of 1,501 adults this month found only 35 percent approving Mr. Bush’s handling of the war.
But 53 percent said the war is going well or fairly well, and 50 percent said they wanted U.S. forces to stay until Iraq is stabilized.
So far, the Democrats “have yet to articulate a solution that people find reassuring or encouraging,” said Mr. Norquist. “When Democrats just stand there and point to Iraq and say there are problems, people agree. But when the Democrats open their mouths and offer alternatives, they lose support.”