Iraq legacy will affect not only Bush, but Democrats, too

Iraq will be the issue that determines the outcome of this fall's elections.

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My column last week suggested that the Bush presidency was at the tipping point, largely because of Iraq, the issue that will define it.

In the days since then the scales have tilted a smidgen in the president's favor.

There was President Bush's stealth trip to Baghdad, closely held until he got there, to look into the eyes of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to stiffen the backbone of the new Iraqi cabinet, and to publicly transfer the responsibility for whatever happens next in Iraq to the Iraqi leadership now in place.

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The Iraqis responded with a show of force intended to convince him that they will contain terrorism and restore law and order – at least in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, American and Iraqi forces, claiming an intelligence bonanza after eliminating Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said it had enabled them to roll up parts of the insurgent network. Documents said to have been captured during the process suggested that the insurgents were losing momentum and would, if they could, lure the US into a distracting war with Iran. The legitimacy of these documents is not known.

If this was as good a week as the Bush administration has had in some time, what did it do for the Democrats, for whom Iraq is also an all-encompassing issue as they look to make gains in the fast-approaching midterm elections? The main thrust of the Democratic attack on the Republican administration is that, having occupied Iraq, it has made a mess of the postwar effort and doesn't have a plan to end it. The main thrust of the Republican response is to argue that the Democrats have nothing positive to offer and that their only plan is to berate the Republicans for not having a plan. The Democrats have announced a domestic "New Direction" agenda, dismissed in a New York Times column as a "checklist of old directions." It offers no new thinking about Iraq.

Like the Republican Party, the Democratic Party is one of diverse factions. There is a chasm between its moderate centrists and liberal left-wingers. This makes it difficult for them to offer a common position on Iraq. In recent days we have seen Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, the defeated Democratic candidate in the last presidential election, at odds with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) of New York, who may well be the Democratic candidate in the next presidential election. Senator Kerry supports a specific early withdrawal date for American soldiers from Iraq. Republicans have been swift to label that a "cut-and-run" stance. Senator Clinton, who in preparation for a presidential bid has been positioning herself as a moderate, recently told a Democratic gathering that setting a withdrawal date would play into the enemy's hands and she opposes it. She was roundly booed for her position.

Another negative for the Democrats is the news that Karl Rove, whom Bush described as "the architect" of his victory in the 2004 presidential election, will not face prosecution for leaking the name of CIA staffer Valerie Plame to the press. No longer distracted by the threat of legal action, Mr. Rove is free to devote full attention to strategies to defeat Democrats in the midterm elections.

For instance, Democrats have argued that the president is vulnerable to criticism that he is unfriendly to environmentalism. But the president has just nominated an ardent environmentalist, Goldman Sachs boss Henry Paulson, to be Treasury secretary. He has also just set aside 140,000 square miles of ocean, islands, atolls, and coral reef colonies as a marine sanctuary near Hawaii to protect monk seals, green sea turtles, and other rare species.

These are interesting moves at a time when former presidential aspirant Al Gore is suddenly in the limelight and on the movie screen as a persuasive champion of environmental causes. Though Mr. Gore dismisses gossip and media speculation about another presidential bid, he might yet surface in an attempt to thwart Senator Clinton's run for the presidency.

Clinton similarly disavows her all-but-certain candidacy, but it is routine for all presidential candidates, both Democrat and Republican, to coyly deny at this early stage of the game that the White House dominates their private musings. Indeed, as one US senator told me wryly: "There's not a soul in the Senate who hasn't dreamed at one time or another of occupying the White House." While Washington maneuverings are intriguing to watch, events in Iraq will largely determine which way the scales of American politics ultimately tip.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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