Back in the heady days of late 2006--when Barack Obama decided on his run for president--Democrats had a foolproof plan to gain power: Use the "disastrous" war in Iraq to split the Republican base off from the center, force Republicans in Congress to desert the president, defund the war effort, and compel withdrawal. Declaring defeat in advance, and even embracing it, they tried to cripple the surge before it started. Nancy Pelosi in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate led a chorus of Democrats who declared the war lost.
Even after the surge began, they hoped that pressure would cause mass defections among Republicans, and pressure was duly poured on. Reid is "lashing out at top commanders while putting the finishing touches on a plan to force a series of votes on Iraq designed exclusively to make Republicans up for reelection in 2008 go on record in favor of continuing an unpopular war," Politico reported on June 14, 2007. "By September," Reid hoped, "Republican senators will break with the president."
The left planned an "Iraq Summer," with antiwar groups spending millions on grassroots campaigns. In May 2007, the Washington Post reported on plans to spend up to $12 million on demonstrations, phone calls, and ad campaigns to pressure Republican lawmakers. Tom Matzzie, head of the activist pressure group Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, visited the offices of Politico to unveil his grandiose plans. "Democrats and the antiwar movement had the GOP 'by the balls,' Matzzie argued. . . . 'We're going to smash their heads against their base, and flush them down the toilet,' " he said. Late in July, Congress adjourned, with Democrats convinced that when they returned in September, Republican lines would be shattered. But the only sound one heard last fall was that of a toilet not flushing.
What happened to change things? The proverbial facts on the ground. At the end of July, longtime Bush critics Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon, Democrats allied with a center-left think tank, returned from Iraq having found not chaos but "a war we just might win," as the headline on their New York Times op-ed proclaimed. Within weeks, three Democrats who had been to Iraq over the recess also jumped off the antiwar caravan, citing progress sufficient to make them more "flexible" when it came to demands for rapid defunding. These were not the defections Harry Reid had planned on.
Though Democrats did their best in advance to discredit the testimony to Congress in early September of Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus (whom they had called to testify months earlier, when they were certain there would be nothing to report but more failure), their measured accounts of modest but marked improvements everywhere in the country checked the course of debate, and then started to change its direction. Public opinion, which had aligned with the Democrats' base at the height of the violence, began to drift back towards the center. A slight uptick in the polls stiffened the spines of beleagured Republicans. The lines held, the rebellion was stymied, and Bush got his way on his war funding measures. "Iraq Summer" turned into the summer that things began to turn around in Iraq.
And so it is that this summer the Democrats and their nominee find themselves caught between an undeniable change in conditions and a dogmatic, intransigent base--in other words, in the very same spot the antiwar left had hoped to put Republicans in. "The politics of Iraq are going to change dramatically in the general election, assuming Iraq continues to show some hopefulness," O'Hanlon told the New York Times last November. "If Iraq looks at least partly salvageable, it will be important to explain as a candidate how you would salvage it. . . . The Democrats need to be very careful with what they say, and not hem themselves in."
Boxing their candidate in is, of course, what the Democratic base wants and insists on. So far, the line has been that the surge is a success but the war is a failure--"whipped cream on a pile of fertilizer," as Time's Joe Klein puts it, "a regional policy unprecedented in its stupidity and squalor." But even this hasn't quite caught up with events. Saddam is gone, Al Qaeda in Iraq is on the run, the Sunnis are with us, the Shia are turning against their militias, and the Washington Post is suggesting that "Iraq, a country with the world's second largest oil reserves and a strategic linchpin of the Middle East, just might emerge from the last five years of war and turmoil as an American ally, even if its relations with Iran remain warm." In other words, the operation was a failure, but the patient has survived, and is somehow becoming healthier by the day. Seldom has failure appeared quite so good.
"What do the Democrats do if--yes, if, if, if--the surge appears to have succeeded?" Michael Crowley wrote in a New Republic blog last November. "If Iraq somehow stabilizes and even incrementally improves, doesn't that affect the presidential campaign?" Crowley wondered "whether the Democrats have been preparing for that possibility--and what their contingency plans are if the Iraq debate tacks substantially back the GOP's way."
In their innocent way they hadn't prepared in the slightest, which is why they are caught between a public that would rather not lose a war and a base of Bush-hating, antiwar supporters to whom the idea of giving up on losing would feel like the worst loss of all. On the one hand, the former is most of the country; on the other, for the past five years or so all of the zest, oomph, zeal, pizzazz, and certainly most of the cash in the party has come from the latter. The problem was summed up nicely last week in the Washington Post, where on Tuesday the more centrist editorial board praised Obama for moving away from the "strident and rigid posture he struck [on Iraq] during the primary campaign," while on Monday the liberal columnist E. J. Dionne had warned Obama he had to stay as strident and rigid as ever, or else he would lose the "high ground" and "dull the enthusiasm (and inhibit the campaign contributions) of the war's staunchest foes." Meanwhile, the netroots are bitching, and Obama's online donations have begun to drop off.
Throughout 2007 and into this year, the Democrats portrayed the surge as Bush's attempt to kick defeat down the road to his successor, but that line, too, has been overtaken by events. Vietnam was seen as lost when Lyndon Johnson handed it off in 1969 to Richard M. Nixon, and Nixon was not blamed for the failure. But Iraq now, by almost every metric, is on the way up. Bush's successor will have to work hard to lose it, and do so against the loud public protests of the troops who have done so much to win it. This is where Obama's prior pronouncements would lead him, and surely he knows it. His base may still want him to lose "Bush's War," but the rest of the country would never forgive him. Or it.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.