Sunday, July 22, 2007

What Am I Missing?

Help me out here. Most of the time when I post, it's because I think I understand something and I want the rest of you to understand it too. But today I'm posting because I don't understand what the Republicans are doing, and I'm hoping maybe you do.

In high school I used to play a lot of chess. And I remember very clearly the euphoric feeling I got whenever an opponent who usually beat me seemed to be cheerfully blundering into a trap. I learned (the hard way) to be suspicious of that feeling. Because it often meant that my opponent saw something I didn't.

So: Republicans. Iraq. 2008 elections. They're marching off a cliff, aren't they? Are they really that dumb? Or do they see something I don't?

Let's turn the board around and try to play the red pieces instead of the blue ones. In particular, let's look at the board from the point of view of my Republican senator, John Sununu of New Hampshire, who's up for re-election.

Here's what John has working against him: New Hampshire got swept by the Democrats in 2006. We overturned our entire delegation in the House: two Republican incumbents lost to two Democrats, neither of whom started with a whole lot of name recognition. Our Democratic governor got more than 70% of the vote. We turned over both houses of the state legislature. It was a blue tidal wave, and the Republicans were lucky not to have a senate seat in play.

But that was last year. Let's look at the current polls. In 2002 Sununu beat then-governor Jeanne Shaheen 50-47. Shaheen hasn't announced another run, but a poll by Manchester TV station WMUR has her ahead 54-38. Sununu leads the three announced Democratic candidates, none of whom has Shaheen's name recognition, but in no case does he get more than 44%. That kind of poll is death for an incumbent. It says 56% of the state knows him and is looking for somebody else. Sununu's favorable/unfavorable split is 43/35, the lowest it's been since he was elected.

But John is wildly popular compared to his leader, President Bush. An ARG poll from late June claims that only 14% of New Hampshirites approve of the job Bush is doing -- the lowest rate in the nation. 79% disapprove. That poll doesn't break out specific issues, but I have to think a lot of the problem is Iraq. New Hampshire isn't a haven for liberal peaceniks (that would be Vermont) but even our conservatives are the pragmatic penny-pinching kind rather than the America-kicks-butt kind. In New Hampshire, Iraq is one of those big expensive government programs that we don't see any benefit from, and Bush is one of those out-of-touch Washington types who thinks he knows better than we do.

So Sununu has started to soften his rhetoric on Iraq. He now supports a proposal to endorse the Baker-Hamilton recommendations. Already in January he was saying stuff like, "We made significant mistakes after Saddam Hussein's fall" and "ours is not an open-ended commitment." He straddled on the surge: He approved of the new tactics, "but they can be implemented without a significant increase in U.S. troop presence."

But when push comes to shove, he votes with Bush. As recently as May, he said: "Telling members of al Qaeda, militias or insurgent groups the date we will begin and end troop withdrawals is irresponsible.” And last week he held firm with the Republican filibuster against the Democrats' proposal to force a withdrawal of most U.S. troops by April.

Now, I've never thought much of Sununu's political philosophy, but he's always seemed like a smart politician. What's he thinking? These are the only possibilities I can think of:

Things will look better in Iraq by election day. In other words, he'll be able to make the case: "Things looked tough in Iraq for a while, but aren't we glad the Congress didn't panic like my opponent did?"

It's hard for me to imagine he believes that things will actually be better in Iraq. There's no sign of either a stable government forming or a workable plan for dividing the country. American troops have their fingers in the dike of a civil war. We can either keep taking casualties while things get slowly worse, or we can pull back and watch things get worse faster. Neither option gives Bush supporters much to run on.

But maybe there's a way to put lipstick on the pig, to engineer another purple-finger feel-good moment just in time for the 2008 elections. You get some Sunni/Shia/Kurd compromise plan announced in say September, announce plans for troop withdrawals, and actually have a few troops come home to great fanfare in mid-October. The whole things falls apart shortly after the polls close, of course, but who cares about that?

That was essentially the 2004 strategy: We pulled our troops back to base and kept casualties down in October, then sent the Marines into Fallujah five days after the election. There were 64 American deaths in Iraq in October of 2004, and 137 in November.

Any chance that could work? Or that Sununu could believe the Bush people could pull such a thing off? It seems like such a long shot. I can't believe he's counting on it.

There's still time to switch. The idea here is that Sununu is supporting Bush to avoid having a primary battle, but as soon as it's too late for a Republican challenger to mount a campaign he'll take a strong stand against the war. This would allow him to project a reasonable-moderate image by election day.

Maybe. And it would fit with the equivocal rhetoric that so far is not reflected in his votes. But the problem is that it leaves him holding the bag: The Iraq War is an admitted disaster. We sacrificed (by then) 5,000 lives and maybe a trillion dollars for nothing, and John Sununu supported it.

So he has to be able to claim that the failure is somebody else's fault: The war he supported could have worked and should have worked, but somebody else screwed it all up. The Iraqis, certainly. We gave them a chance to build democracy, but they refused to take it and blah, blah, blah.

This noble-but-stupid take on the war might fly in the old confederacy, where doomed idealism carries a certain romance, but I can't picture it working in pragmatic New Hampshire. You trusted the camel-drivers to build a democracy? John, what were you smoking?

He needs a more credible target for blame.

The Democrats stabbed our troops in the back. This is the Harry-Reid-nightmare scenario: The Democrats succeed in forcing a pull-out before election day, and the Bush people do the passive-aggressive thing to make it look as bad as possible. Wholesale blood-letting ensues, and now it's the Democrats who are left holding the bag. Our fine troops would have won the war if we'd held firm just a little longer, but now their lives have been wasted, and so on.

The problem is this: How does this scenario come about unless Republicans like Sununu switch sides? The only way it happens is if 41 Democrats filibuster an Iraq appropriation bill. And they show no signs of doing that. Bush will continue to veto any pull-out bill, and it takes 67 Senate votes to override. So 17 Republicans have to vote for a pull-out (assuming Liebermann will be in the Bush bunker until the bitter end). You can't get there without including Sununu on that list.

That's the problem with styling yourself as a moderate. Nothing changes unless you change, so you don't have the option of blaming somebody else for how things shake out.

Something else happens to take Iraq out of the spotlight. This is the they-know-something-I-don't scenario. Sununu knows we're going to attack Iran. He knows there's going to be another 9/11. He knows Bush is planning to declare martial law and cancel the 2008 elections. What could it be?

I'm struggling with this option. It's the only one that makes sense to me in the abstract, but anything specific I fill in looks paranoid. The Iran or the 9/11 scenario could easily backfire on the Republicans unless it's carefully timed and scripted. I can't imagine any such scripting that doesn't involve a considerable amount of treason. Can you? And I can't imagine Cheney sharing such a plan very widely. Could the Congressional Republicans have just gotten a "trust us, you don't want to know the details" message?

And if they had such a plan, why didn't they use it 2006? Wouldn't Sununu look at his two defeated Republican colleagues in the House before he trusted Rove et al to take care of him?

So that's as far as I get. When I go back and sit behind the blue pieces, it continues to look like my opponent is an idiot. But I'm having real trouble believing that.

Help me out.

1 Comments:

Blogger David said...

The only other thing I can think of is that Bush or the Republican leadership has caused the Republican rank-and-file to take Ben Franklin's advice to heart: "We must hang together, or surely we will hang separately." A variant of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

The only problem is, I don't see that as actually working in this circumstance.

My gut tells me that there is a planned invasion of Iran in the offing, but I'm really hoping they aren't that crazy or suicidal. I do think the neocons (Norman Podhoretz, William Kristol, etc.) are that nuts, but I'm not sure they have any credibility left at all with the rank-and-file.

So, although this may be the White House's plan, it doesn't explain why the Rs in Congress would give them any oxygen for such a plan. They're right-wing, desperate, and corrupt, but most of them aren't actually crazy.

12:44 PM  

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