Fineman: The Surge and the Polls

Welcome to the Bazaar phase of Iraq War politics. I do not mean "bizarre," though it may be that, too, but "bazaar" as in Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, where they haggle to exhaustion over predetermined outcomes. Everyone knows a deal will be made, but the process is about the price and the egos of the bargainers.

This was supposed to be a make-or-break week in the politics of the war. It is nothing of the kind. We already know where we're headed. Sometime late this year, perhaps early in 2008, we will begin withdrawing the 30,000 "surge" troops from Iraq. Their departure will have nothing to do with the debate here; they must depart for logistical "rotation" reasons. Later in the year it is possible, though not likely, that some of the remaining 130,000 troops will leave. We'll still be north of 100,000.

Democrats will vote a date for the start of withdrawal, but the pace will not be a "precipitous" one, to use Sen. Harry Reid's word. Some Republicans will vote for the measure, but it won't have an end date—what GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell calls a "surrender date." In between, there will be endless arguments over timing and troop strength.

Bottom line: Americans will go to the polls on Nov. 4, 2008 with basically the same Iraq policy in place as we have now. All of the rest is the sound and fury of political positioning. If the American people want to end this war faster, they will have to vote to do so—again, since that is what most of them thought they were doing in 2006.

Iraq still veto-proof
Let me run some numbers here in the Bazaar. President Bush can defend his policy by hiding out in his Constitutional cave. Were Congress to pass legislation cutting off funding for the war—the only real way to stop the conflict—Bush surely would veto the bill. It takes 67 votes in the Senate to override such a veto—way too high a figure for the 50 Democrats (don't count Sen. Joe Lieberman) and their small band of Republican allies to overcome. Even getting a vote on such a measure would require ending a certain GOP Senate filibuster. That requires 60 votes—again, no way.

Bush and his strategists began their calculations with these numbers. Their intent never has been to win over—or win back—the country as a whole, but to use the "surge" and the credibility of Gen. David Petraeus to prevent defections from Republican ranks, in the Congress and at the grassroots. That is why former GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie was brought in as the new White House "strategery" chief. He knows how to talk to, and soothe the nerves, of Republicans—not angry Democrats.

A combination of stubbornness and spin seems to have worked—barely, but perhaps just enough. The latest polls show a modest firming of Republican support for the plausibility, if not the ultimate success, of Bush's strategy in Iraq and elsewhere in the "war on terror."

Politics is never what it seems, and the patterns change with each turn of the kaleidoscope. A few months ago, it appeared crystal clear that the GOP was on the road to ruin because of Iraq. The Democrats, however, have been unable to capitalize on the GOP's predicament. There simply is no way for them to accomplish in Congress what the average Democratic voter wants – and end to the war. That, in turn, has drained away what little credibility the Democratic Congress had with its constituents.

Democratic edge?
Even if they could get a meaningful, war-ending deal—which they can't—there are Democrats in Washington who may console themselves that they will "have the issue" in the 2008 election—that is, that they can ride to the White House on a wave of voter discontent.

If they can't deliver, however, they could face a third-party or independent presidential campaign that would make Ralph Nader's 2000 effort look minor by comparison.

And now Bush, cold-blooded as usual, is moving to back the Democrats into a corner of their own good conscience. Having launched a war that has killed tens of thousands and left Iraq in ruins, he demands that Democrats not abandon the poor Iraqis to the "killing fields." Having given Iran an opening in Mesopotamia, he insists that Democrats not abandon the region to the same Mullahs he managed to empower.

One other factor that allows Bush to dig in: Vice President Dick Cheney isn't running to succeed him. Bush surely wants to see the GOP win in 2008, but he has no personal ties to a potential successor that he would feel obligated to protect.

To haggle successfully in the Grand Bazaar, you have to be willing—really willing—to walk away. Bush is relying on the fact that the Democrats are probably too responsible to do so.

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