Mideast strife gives Dems edge

Time is running out for Republican hopes that troops will be coming home from Iraq in time to help stave off a Democratic victory in the midterm elections.

Time is running out for Republican hopes that troops will be coming home from Iraq in time to help stave off a Democratic victory in the midterm elections.

For months now, Republican leaders have been hopefully predicting that things are getting better and we’ll be seeing thousands of soldiers come home before Election Day, but President Bush had a decidedly different message for the country this week.

Meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House, the president said, “Obviously the violence in Baghdad is still terrible.” He then announced we’d be moving U.S. troops from elsewhere in Iraq to the strife-torn capital.

More and more, it seems Iraq is spiraling into civil war. More and more, the administration’s goal of achieving a stable, democratic society as a peaceful anchor in the Middle East seems out of reach. More and more, I’m hearing comments in focus groups that Iraq was a mistake, that all we accomplished was to turn a stable dictatorship into a brokered coalition government too weak to control sectarian rivalries that have festered just beneath the surface for decades, a government that denounces “Israeli aggression” while giving Hezbollah a free ride.

Recently one Republican voter opined that the only remaining question is the boundaries of the three nations Iraq is destined to become.

Now, with war rapidly escalating between Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah, it is likely that voters will increasingly see the Bush administration as blindly committed to a failed foreign policy. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice carried a rather existential view of the Middle East to Rome this week and found few takers in the international community.

The administration’s contention that a more stable Lebanon will emerge from this struggle sounds strangely familiar to the position that waging war on Iraq was the way to save it. At first Americans were willing to follow the president down that path. Now a strong majority believes that policy was a mistake.

It is too early to tell if independent and moderate Republican voters will see the administration policy toward ending the violence in Lebanon and Israel in the same light that they do Bush’s policies in Iraq. If that is, indeed, where American public opinion goes, it spells even more trouble for Republicans in the November elections.

Recent polls continue to show growing dissatisfaction with Bush’s Iraq policies. Most voters have more confidence in Democrats than Republicans to find a way out of that .

Even the traditional GOP advantage on the war on terrorism is showing signs of slippage. With Iran’s fingerprints all over the Hezbollah aggression and a growing perception that the theocracy there is supporting terrorist cells around the world, the administration is losing some credibility.

A recent poll by the Democracy Corps, a group founded by pollster Stanley Greenberg and strategists James Carville and Robert Shrum, suggests the Democrats can build more support on the foundation of frustration with Iraq. Rather than engage in a debate over a timetable for withdrawal of troops, this poll suggests the message be broadened.

The July survey found a high level of frustration with money wasted on sweetheart, no-bid contracts in Iraq. The message, according to these Democratic strategists, should be that “we need a Congress that will use its investigative powers to look at the no-bid contracts for Halliburton, how $9 billion in U.S. government cash went missing in Iraq while our troops struggled to get body armor, and what role oil companies are playing in Iraq.” This mixture of patriotism and populism jumped the Democratic lead in congressional races to 14 points.

That message meshes nicely with the cronyism-and-corruption refrain that seems to be gaining traction in some congressional races. The GOP Congress is working for big corporations, not real people. Their tax cuts for the wealthy have created an economy that is crushing middle-class families with high gas prices and healthcare costs. Wall Street is doing well, but Elm Street is barely holding its own.

Together, a bungled foreign policy, corruption in Washington and Iraq, favoritism for the privileged and tight times for working Americans is a powerful message. In a summer when terrorists seem to control the streets of Baghdad, sending more American troops there to prop up a faltering government that is openly critical of our Israeli ally just might be the equivalent of sending Democratic volunteers into the precincts of contested congressional races.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.