Bush at the Tipping Point

As friends describe it, Rep. Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania had been searching his soul for months, seeking guidance on what to do in Congress about Iraq. "I think he was going through what we Catholics call a 'long night of the soul'," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. In 1974, Democrat Murtha had become the first Vietnam veteran elected to the House. A decorated Marine from the mountainous "Deer Hunter" country east of Pittsburgh, he had always been a down-the-line hawk and a favorite of the Pentagon generals. Now, at 73, he was the dean of the House on defense spending: a gruff, taciturn pasha receiving supplicants from his perch in the "Pennsylvania corner" of the floor--last row, aisle seat, surrounded by equally beefy cronies. "I like to do things behind the scenes," Murtha explained to NEWSWEEK.

But, by last week, Murtha had decided to come out of his corner in spectacular fashion. The result was a turning point--and a low point--in the war at home over the war in Iraq. Reassembling its campaign-style war-room apparatus, the White House went on the offensive against Democrats, who in turn were emboldened by polls that showed a cratering of the Bush presidency. After months of debate over the question of how the country got into Iraq--who knew what and when about the absence of WMD--the political center of gravity suddenly shifted to another question: how we get out.

Murtha was the one-man tipping point. Initially a strong supporter of the conflict, he had voted for it and the money to pay for it. But on his last trip to Iraq, he had become convinced not only that the war was unwinnable, but that the continued American military presence was making matters far worse. "We're the target, we're part of the problem," he told news-week. Back in Washington, he resumed his weekly pilgrimage to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, visiting severely wounded casualties in rehab and agonizing over what he saw there. "I think those visits affected him deeply," said DeLauro. In a long chat with an Irish colleague, he talked about his congressional hero and mentor, another blue-collar Irishman, Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill. No liberal on defense, in 1967 O'Neill had stunned President Lyndon B. Johnson by telling him that the Vietnam War had become a lost cause. Now, Murtha mused, it was his turn to confront a president with harsh truths.

Which was precisely what the Democratic leadership wanted Murtha to do. A close ally, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, was anxious to open a second axis of attack on Iraq--and was aware of his growing antagonism toward the war. The two met and agreed that he would make his case in private to the party conference. After that, on his own, he would introduce a resolution calling for withdrawal of troops from Iraq "at the earliest practicable date." Pelosi and the other liberals would keep their distance, while their own Marine charged up the Hill. Framed by long rows of American flags at a press conference, he denounced the Iraq war as a "flawed policy wrapped in an illusion."

Murtha had known he would set off an explosion. He did. His arrival on the House floor was greeted with cheers from fellow Democrats, by dagger glances from Republicans. A near riot ensued. An Ohio backbencher named Jean Schmidt, eager to demonstrate coldbloodedness, was given time by GOP leaders to relate a phone call from a Marine whom she said wanted "to send Congressman Murtha a message: that cowards cut and run, Marines never do." Furious Democrats charged down the aisles, fists in the air, shouting that Schmidt's words had to be stricken from the record. "You guys are pathetic!" yelled Rep. Martin Meehan of Massachusetts, while Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee charged into the GOP side to confront them. The melee was so intense that it brought the soothing presence of Rep. Tom DeLay from his secure undisclosed location, and Schmidt eventually apologized. By a vote of 403-3, the House ultimately rejected a bowdlerized version of Murtha's resolution, which the GOP had crafted (without Murtha's permission) to sound as cravenly antiwar as possible. Seeing the obvious trap, virtually every Democrat, including Murtha, voted against it.

The drama on the floor was a shabby--at times, farcical--finale to a season that nevertheless had produced something serious: a transformation of the politics of the war in Washington. Some of the change had little to do with the war per se. From the bungling of Katrina disaster relief to the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, the White House had faced a run of bad news that would buckle support for any of the president's policies. But as they watched the continued deadly attacks by Sunni insurgents--and the continued erosion of Bush's numbers as a war leader and honest man--Democrats were encouraged to up the ante in Congress. "The fact is, Bush's war policy has failed," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, a former Clinton spin doctor who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It's failed! Who better to say so than Jack Murtha?"

On the ground, the shrewder analysts say, it's not entirely clear that U.S. policy has "failed." The TV news, not to mention Al-Jazeera, doesn't regularly summarize the stunning changes in Iraq, many of them morally and politically worthy. Saddam Hussein is gone and awaiting trial. Schools, hospitals and other institutions are operating in most parts of the country. Voters have adopted a constitution. And even many Sunnis are gathering in political parties that are maneuvering in advance of the Dec. 15 national elections. After the elections, the plan is that Coalition forces will use the growing number of capable Iraqi units to "clear, hold and build" a peaceful Iraq.

But fresh allegations that the government was secretly torturing Sunnis won't help encourage that sect to take part in the December balloting. And few members of Congress return from visits to Iraq buoyant about the likelihood of ending the insurgency any time soon without a massive infusion of additional American troops that, according to Murtha, would require the reinstitution of the draft. "I saw how discouraged these commanders were," the congressman told NEWSWEEK. "They say what the White House wants them to say, but they don't have enough troops to secure the border."

As Congress fled the capital for Thanksgiving, and Bush made his way back from a trip to Asia, White House aides were studying the political videotapes to see where they had lost control of events. Among those at fault, they decided, was GOP Sen. Bill Frist, outmaneuvered early this month by the Democrats' Harry Reid, who used a parliamentary trick to force the Senate into a secret session and demand answers on WMD issues. But White House aides concede that they, too, were at fault for having assumed that Bush was personally unassailable and that events--and explanations of them--would take care of themselves. A war-room defense was "something we did well during the campaign," said Nicolle Wallace, Bush's communications director. "Maybe incorrectly, we had hoped or presumed that wouldn't be necessary after the election."

It is. The war room now is back, staffed with many of the same people who ran it in 2004, led by the Boy Genius himself, Karl Rove. To answer the charges that Bush "deliberately misled" the country on WMD, the White House is arguing that most Democrats--and most U.N. officials and European intelligence agencies--thought Saddam had WMD, too. Bush aides argue that Democrats saw the same intel and came to the same conclusions Bush did (an assertion Democrats hotly dispute). "We recognized that we can't communicate our message effectively until we deal with this," said a top White House aide.

But it's unclear how calling Democrats hypocrites will help revive Bush's personal reputation. Rather than undermine Bush's foes, the strategy seems unlikely to do more than remind voters of the undeniable fact that the WMD simply weren't there. And to make their case at all, White House strategists have been forced to use a tactic they studiously avoided in the campaign: deploying Bush himself as the attack dog. "Having the president engaged in the argument is not the first choice," says Sen. John Cornyn, a Texan who is close to Bush and Rove. But the president pressed ahead. "While it is perfectly legitimate to criticize my decisions or the conduct of the war," he told a military audience in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., last week, "it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began." Then he resorted once again to the argument all presidents unload in wartime: that criticism undermines morale and emboldens our enemies. "These baseless attacks," he declared, "send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy determined to destroy our way of life." But even using that weapon can be risky at a time when polls show most Americans doubt that the war in Iraq has made us safer.

War-room spinners also hope to highlight whatever good news there is to be found in Iraq, and which, they say, doesn't make its way into the American media. They recently dispatched one of their best operatives, Steve Schmidt (no relation to the Ohio congresswoman), to Baghdad to look for ways generate positive press. His answer: build better relations with the reporters. But they may be preoccupied these days by the need to dodge terrorist attacks on their hotels.

The president himself remains upbeat, saying that he will "settle for nothing less than victory." Democrats such as Sen. John Kerry, meanwhile, have begun offering measured withdrawal plans, and Republicans, such as Sen. Chuck Hagel, are expressing their deep doubts about the policy. The Pentagon has developed elaborate options for phased withdrawals of U.S. forces. Murtha plans to press for a full-scale debate. "Tip O'Neill would be proud of you," a friend wrote to him. At the end of the week Murtha was back in the Pennsylvania corner, only now everyone in Washington knew exactly where he was.