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Demand Results, Not Deadlines

By Douglas Schoen

President George W. Bush's misconduct of the war in Iraq has badly eroded the Republican Party's traditional edge on national security. It's hard to exaggerate the potential significance of this development. In both 2000 and 2004, Democratic Presidential nominees Al Gore and John Kerry beat George W. Bush on almost every issue in poll after poll save national security -- and lost. In 2006, Democrats closed that gap and won control of Congress. In short, if the GOP loses its national security edge, it loses virtually everything.

It hasn't happened yet though. Although roughly sixty percent of Americans now disapprove of President Bush's job performance and support Democratic plans for a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, potential Republican Presidential candidates such as Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain -- candidates who express a desire to expand the so-called war on terror -- are showing surprising strength in hypothetical match-ups with Democrats. Only the most recent Newsweek poll (5/2-5/3) shows probable Democratic Presidential nominees defeating probable Republican nominees across the board. Other polling has consistently shown a slight edge for the Republican frontrunners. Clearly, the race is still very close. The public remains ambivalent.

In short, American politics has come to a critical juncture. How Democrats in Congress choose to express their opposition to President Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq may well determine whether the GOP loses its national security/national defense advantage or whether it survives to win the GOP another Presidential election. Unfortunately, Democrats in Congress are under tremendous pressure to do the wrong thing: to set an arbitrary deadline for pulling out of Iraq in the near future. According to yesterday's New York Times, groups such as are demanding that Democrats stand firm in the current veto showdown with President Bush. They have also made it clear that the unity Democrats currently enjoy will come to an end if the party leadership fails to insist on a withdrawal by a date certain next year. This position is understandable but profoundly mistaken. Here's why.

The most certain way for Congress to end the war in Iraq would be to cut off funding for troops in the field. That would be a terrible political error. Polls such as the most recent New York Times/CBS (4/20-4/27) survey make it clear that while the public supports a firm deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, it does not support cutting off funds for troops in the field. Democrats regained control of Congress last year because the Republican national security advantage had decreased. Cutting off funds for the troops could well halt this important trend in the Democrats' direction. More important, it would also provide Republicans with an excuse for the loss of the war in Iraq and distract attention from President Bush's mismanagement of broader events in the Middle East and the war on terror generally. While it might provide short-term satisfaction, in time, it would resurrect the GOP's national security edge just as surely the Democratic Party's dovishness at the end of the Vietnam War did. Already, Republicans like Rudolph Giuliani are accusing Democrats of waving "the white flag of defeat in front of those who want to come here and kill [us]." In short, it would be a decision that could haunt the party for decades to come.

Democrats need to back off from this threat. Instead of imposing deadlines, they should demand results. Fortunately, there is an excellent, bipartisan option on the table that does just this -- the legislation proposed by Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine. Snowe's bill would require the military to prepare plans for withdrawing from Iraq in 120 days if certain benchmarks aren't met. It sends the right message: start winning or get out. By putting forward a bipartisan plan, Democrats would take away the Republican argument that we undermined Iraq and the war on terror, taking the national security issue off the table in way that would make it very hard for Republicans to resurrect going forward. It would also focus the public's attention for the failures in Iraq where it belongs -- on the Bush administration.

I know that this advice will not prove popular with the anti-war left. For those who believe that the war is lost and that the only course of action is unilateral withdrawal, it may seem that the only moral course of action is to press for leaving the region as quickly as possible. In contrast, giving an administration that has consistently bungled the conduct of the war more time may seem like folly. It isn't. Early withdrawal could be a disaster on the ground as well as politically. Tough legislation patterned on the Snowe bill can provide real accountability. Positioning for political advantage isn't unseemly; it's essential. If the administration of George W. Bush has taught us anything, it is that politics has serious consequences. This country needs a Democratic President; the anti-war movement has a moral obligation to play this smart. It would be a tragedy if anti-war Democrats insist on fracturing Democratic unity now.

Douglas E. Schoen is the author of the recently published book, The Power of the Vote: Electing Presidents, Overthrowing Dicators, and Promoting Democracy Around the World (Morrow, 2007).

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