"The war," Sen. Mitch McConnell told me last week, "is the reason you are speaking to the Republican leader, not the majority leader." Yet McConnell and his fellow Republicans in Congress have chosen, nearly unanimously, to stick with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove in a confrontation over the Democrats' proposal to tie $100 billion in Iraq funding to a timetable for withdrawal. "The war is a difficult issue for my party, which is a statement of the obvious," he said. But the goal remains the same: "to establish a stable government in Iraq" that can be an ally in the "war on terror." And so it came to pass that the Leonidas of Louisville led the Spartans—47 senators and 198 House members who voted against the Dems—to Thermopylae (or at least spring break).
Since self-sacrifice for the sake of principle is rare in Congress, you have to ask: are Republicans marching to glory? Or, in Barbara Tuchman's stinging phrase, is this a March of Folly? Sen. Evan Bayh, a hawkish Democrat turned war critic, thinks the more apt screen reference is "Blazing Saddles." "You know the movie scene: the guy turns a gun on himself and shouts, 'Stop or I'll shoot!'" With presidential approval ratings at historic lows, with voters supporting a timetable for withdrawal by a clear majority, with the GOP's brand name melting faster than an Alaskan glacier, what could McConnell & Co. be thinking?
Short answer: whatever Rove tells them to. The Boy Genius faces subpoenas and an antagonistic press, but Republicans up for re-election in 2008—including McConnell, 17 other senators and the party's declared presidential contenders—have not found, or even seriously searched for, an alternative to Rove's "wartime commander in chief" theory of post-9/11 politics.
The GOP survival strategy rests—not unreasonably—on the hope that Democrats fall to squabbling over competing House and Senate versions of a funding bill. Republicans will argue that Congress is not able, and constitutionally barred, from a lead role in the war. And they'll decry the pork-barrel spending the Dems used to grease passage of their plans. Rove, meanwhile, is talking up internal polls that purport to show an uptick in public optimism about Iraq. Bush, on the road this week, plans to argue that the surge is working and tout the "new realism" of the American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. With not the least bit of irony—let alone shame—Republicans will contend that they care more about the soldiers, the sordid evidence at Walter Reed notwithstanding. They will unveil an online "countdown" clock showing the days allegedly left until money runs out for the troops—a made-up number in the world's capital of flexible arithmetic.
But, at their core, Republicans will rely on Rove's argument that emerged after 9/11: that the GOP, led by Bush, does not flinch from war; that the war on terror is unlimited in space and time; and that those who think otherwise are misguided, weak-kneed or naive enablers of the enemy. Democrats, McConnell says, wrote a bill that has a "surrender date for Iraq in it." He professes a lack of concern for polls that show his own approval rating in Kentucky at 46 percent, and the president's at 43 percent: "Kentucky is not Berkeley. We have Fort Campbell, the home of the 101st Airborne, the Screaming Eagles. I would doubt that an antiwar effort would get much resonance in a very patriotic, pro-military state like mine." But even in Kentucky, there's a limit to patience. The Screaming Eagles may not be able to rescue him.