What would Democrats do about Iraq?
Even if Democrats take both Houses of Congress, big change is unlikely.
WASHINGTON — In poll after poll, prospective voters name Iraq as the No. 1 issue in the upcoming midterm elections.
So if voters tip one or both Houses of Congress out of Republican control, what impact would that have on the US war effort in Iraq and, more generally, on American foreign policy?
Democrats could conceivably view such an election outcome as a mandate for asserting a markedly different course in Iraq than the one President Bush has set.
But don't expect too much, most experts say.
For one thing, Democrats are not of one mind on what to do about Iraq. And while committees chaired by Democrats might hold more meetings and call more testifiers critical of some White House policies, Mr. Bush would still retain the power of the presidential bully pulpit.
In addition, Bush's foreign policy in the second term has already evolved in a direction – away from unilateralism and toward greater cooperation – that suits both Bush's political opponents and moderates in his own party, some analysts say.
For others, the differences between Bush and the Democrats on the big foreign-policy issues are really a matter of details and not starkly black and white.
"My hunch is that there wouldn't be a large change in American foreign policy with a divided government because there really hasn't been a deep division over the overall direction of that policy," says Julian Zelizer, a specialist in foreign policy and contemporary American politics at Boston University.
"It's ironic because the rhetoric has been so fierce," Mr. Zelizer adds. "But there is general consensus on the war on terror, and even on Iraq it's principally a matter of specifics – for example, the exit strategy and how to handle the Iraqi government. It's not, 'the president says stay' versus 'the Democrats say get out now.' "
Indeed, while some Democratic members of Congress have fielded ideas that have pushed the Iraq debate forward – Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania calling for a withdrawal from Iraq, or Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware proposing a confederation of sectarian-based provinces to stem the violence – the Democrats are not united behind one Iraq policy. That can be seen in the disparate campaigning by Democrats on Iraq, with the one common thread a stiff criticism of Bush's "stick with it until victory" policy.
Despite some niche attention to Darfur or Iran or China trade policy, foreign policy in the midterm elections largely boils down to Iraq. Recognizing that, the White House is signaling to voters that it hears and shares their anxiety, some analysts say, while suggesting that adjustments in policy are coming no matter the outcome of the elections.
"It's what I call the law of anticipated reaction," says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official in the Reagan administration, now at the Center for American Progress in Washington. "The White House can read the writing on the wall and is already adjusting: They've given up 'stay the course' and are now talking about tactical adjustments," he says. "That way they get ahead of looking like they are being pushed by the Democrats."
That said, a House or Senate controlled by Democrats would not be welcomed by the White House. After all, relatively recent history shows that a hostile Congress can at least slow a president's preferred foreign-policy course.
As a new president in 1974, Gerald Ford received briefings from Pentagon officials saying the United States could stave off a full victory by North Vietnam in the south with a bombing campaign. But the Republican president decided against it. Faced with stiff opposition to more war from a Congress that had increased its Democratic majority in midterm elections, Mr. Ford would later conclude in his memoirs that approving the airstrikes would have gotten him impeached.
Congressional opposition to Bush's Iraq war policy may not have reached that level. But that and other differences over foreign policy could raise the speed bumps for the White House.
For example, Democrats who were earlier forced to hold a kind of rump committee meeting for retired military officers disgruntled over Iraq could now make such hearings official.
"It will cause problems for Bush, that we know," says Thomas Henriksen, a foreign-policy expert at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. "We could anticipate new troubles for [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld, more debate over what we do with radical Islam."
In terms of foreign policy, perhaps even more important than who controls Congress is the fact that Bush will be entering his last two years in the White House. Mr. Henriksen says Bush faces a "double whammy" of receding power and the unpopularity of his defining foreign-policy action.
"It makes him the ultimate lame duck," says Henriksen, who expects Republicans with presidential aspirations to begin distancing themselves from Bush policies that the public has turned against.
But not even this means that major shifts in US foreign policy are likely anytime soon. Some experts point out that Bush, hardly known as a leader who changes his mind easily, has paid little heed to respected foreign-policy thinkers in his own party with differing views: for example, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a longtime critic of Bush Iraq policy.
Some observers believe that kind of brushoff will end when the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group, cochaired by former Secretary of State James Baker III, offers its recommendations sometime after the elections.
But there are even doubts in some quarters over how much stock the White House will put in those recommendations. This suggests to some analysts that the Democrats won't expect to make dramatic changes in foreign policy, even if they manage to win both houses of Congress.
"A lot of Democrats will remember the aftermath of 1994 [midterm elections that delivered a huge Republican tide], when one of the biggest mistakes of the Republicans was to overplay their hand the first year out," says Zelizer of Boston University. "The focus then was the domestic agenda, but it will still serve as a cautionary tale to the Democrats about being too bold."