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Republicans Are Unlikely to Defect

Bucking Bush on Iraq Policy Could Alienate
Party and Supporters of Presidential Hopefuls
August 25, 2005; Page A4


WASHINGTON -- In a summer of angst over Iraq, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska has invoked a powerful image by comparing the fighting there to the Vietnam quagmire a generation ago.

Mr. Hagel's decorated Vietnam service and his status as a potential 2008 presidential candidate brought even greater attention to his intraparty blast at President Bush's policy. It also raised the question of whether the lame-duck president's bulwark of Republican support is about to crumble over the Iraq war's mounting toll.

The answer: not likely. National security remains a potent unifying issue for Mr. Bush's political coalition, he retains overwhelming personal popularity among Republicans, and the party's leading candidate to succeed him strongly backs the nation's continued presence in Iraq.

"We can't afford to lose," says Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a maverick on other issues, but a Bush ally on Iraq. While "there's nervousness" among Republicans, he says "I do not see any significant erosion or inclination to jump ship."

Mr. McCain has supported the war as in the interests of American security -- and has a political incentive to keep backing it despite the slip in Mr. Bush's national poll numbers. The former Vietnam prisoner of war, who tangled with conservative Christians in the 2000 campaign and has been an irritant to Mr. Bush on domestic issues since, can ill afford to further antagonize the Republican regulars who will dominate party primaries in 2008.

Those on the ballot in the 2006 midterm elections also know they risk alienating core supporters by bucking Mr. Bush on the security issue that is widely credited with delivering Republican gains in 2002 and 2004. Consider the results of last month's Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll: 75% of Republicans called the Iraq war worth its costs and 84% approved of Mr. Bush's job performance, while strong majorities of Democrats and independents took the opposite view.

Even in such a polarized political environment, anxiety over the insurgency in Iraq is buffeting Mr. Bush's allies. Pessimism about the course of the war has crept up among Republicans and the general public, as the hopeful mood following January's Iraqi election has faded.

Amid the insurgent attacks, some party strategists say the president needs to provide more political cover for fellow Republicans by specifying additional benchmarks for progress in the attempt to build a secure, democratic Iraq. "Casualties in the context of drift is not good," says pollster David Winston, an adviser to House Republicans.

Mr. Bush began doing so this week by interrupting his Texas vacation for a series of speeches defending his policy. In Salt Lake City on Monday, he hailed efforts to draft a constitution in Iraq as a landmark in that nation's reconstruction.

Yesterday in Idaho, he vowed "we will stay, we will fight, and we will win the war on terrorism." Defending his policy, he said, "An immediate withdrawal of our troops in Iraq, or the broader Middle East, as some have called for, would only embolden the terrorists and create a staging ground to launch more attacks against America and free nations."

White House aides are bracing for intraparty flak as members of Congress return to Washington next month. "Maybe there will be a member or two" who breaks with Mr. Bush, says Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, chairman of the House Republicans' campaign committee. Calls for troop withdrawals may increase as the 2006 elections draw closer; the Pentagon has held out the prospect of significant withdrawals next year if Iraq makes progress on political and security issues.

But few Republicans are echoing Mr. Hagel, who said Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that the war has destabilized the Middle East and "stay the course is not a policy." Most Republican members of Congress who have criticized the administration have done so gently.

Sen. George Allen of Virginia, another 2008 Republican hopeful, chided the president for declining to meet again with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier who has become a leader among war protestors. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, under fire from a Democratic opponent for sticking too close to Mr. Bush on Iraq, told the Philadelphia Inquirer this week that he backs administration policy "but not necessarily all of the tactics" in fighting the war.

Mr. McCain expresses a lack of confidence in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But the Arizona senator rejects the comparison to Vietnam as ill-considered, calling the U.S. stake in success in Iraq "a thousand times higher."

During Vietnam, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson suffered a critical intraparty defection when Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright broke with him over the war. Today's committee Chairman Richard Lugar, though he has criticized the administration's postwar planning for Iraq, plans no such break in the panel's scheduled September hearings on Iraq featuring Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"Rather than getting into pointing fingers, let's try to find a solution" to the insurgency, says committee aide Mark Helmke.

The war has been more internally divisive for Democrats, whose activist wing is demanding stronger condemnation of Mr. Bush's policies than most senior Democratic elected officials have been willing to provide. A wide array of leading Democratic office holders -- from 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry to 2008 front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton -- voted to authorize the war in 2002, which has limited their room for maneuver since then.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the House Democrats' campaign committee, says Americans want "a new direction and a new set of priorities" for the country. But he emphasizes the issues of ethics, health care and budget deficits more than the war.

Memories of the political repercussions of Vietnam help embolden Republican strategists as they seek to withstand today's war woes. Democratic splits over the Southeast Asian war helped Richard Nixon win the presidency in 1968 and 1972.

"I see cuts but no large-scale bleeding" for Mr. Bush over Iraq, says Ken Khachigian, a former aide to Mr. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He says Mr. Bush can head off more serious damage if he will "play hardball with ... the cut-and-run crowd" -- including fellow Republicans.

Write to John Harwood at


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An expert on real defense and security matters. On top of domestic and
international matters, experience in running. Gary, please run!

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