Montana's Jon Tester ranks dead last in seniority in the U.S. Senate. In fact, he wears No. 100 on his jersey when he pitches for his office softball team. So agenda-setting for the Democrat caucus does not fall naturally into his portfolio.
But Tester was elected to the Senate by fewer than 3,500 votes in one of the reddest of the Red States, and largely on the issue of Iraq. And on this issue, which demands increasingly more precise political calibrations, Tester may be among the more reliable gauges of the options available to Democrats.
In a speech Tuesday, Tester offered what seems an entirely new formulation on the war in Iraq that may prove particularly attractive to Democrats looking for a way to get around the president's stubbornness and veto pen to end the war in Iraq.
He begins with the idea that the war in Iraq is won, not lost, and that we should pat ourselves firmly on the back and get the hell out. Clearly, with casualties rising and the situation increasingly hopeless, it requires a high quality conceit declare victory in Iraq. But if the aim is to get out, a little rationalizing may be a small price to pay. In Tester's frame, to the extent that there were declared goals for the Operation Iraqi Freedom, they've been met.
Ticking off the three main reasons he believes we went to Iraq -- to search for weapons of mass destruction, to get rid of Saddam Hussein and to give the Iraqis a chances at free and fair elections -- the freshman from Big Sky country sees blue skies and rates the operation a success.
"Our work in Iraq is done... It's time for American troops to stop refereeing a centuries-old civil war and come home after a job well done," he said. It's not hard to see how that rosy view of things can be seductive to Democrats looking for a way to end the war while at the same time not appearing chicken or defeatist.
Declaring victory and pulling out is not an innovative military strategy; in this case it will have its detractors. But to trumpet that we're leaving because the war is won is guaranteed to draw a better reception than one Majority Leader Harry Reid got when he said the United States should leave because the war was lost.
When the Senate returns next week to the consideration of the Defense Department authorization bill, Reid says Democrats are "going to continue focusing on the fact that this war is not good for the American people, not good for that region, not good for the world." Tester's "we-won" formula will likely make its way into the Democratic "messaging" during that debate.
In both the House and the Senate, Democrats will propose measures to have troops withdrawn by April 1, 2008. It's not exactly an April Fools Day joke, but Democrats do expect that the President will veto the measure if he gets a chance. And while the veto may stand, Democrats are betting that it will not enjoy the same kind of support as the last Iraq veto he issued, as before as more and more Republicans have begun to express unhappiness with the war.
When Bush loyalists like Pete Domenici begin denouncing the war, as the six-term New Mexico Republican did Thursday, it means that staying with the president is getting to be more harmful than breaking with him. "I have carefully studied the Iraq situation and believe we cannot continue asking our troops to sacrifice indefinitely while the Iraqi government is not making measurable progress to move its country forward,'' Domenici said at a news conference in Albuquerque.
In West Virginia on July 4th, Bush promised that "Victory in this struggle will require more patience, more courage, and more sacrifice." Increasingly, it appears, the American people are out of patience, and believe that neither the courage nor the sacrifice is worth it.
Standing on the steps of the Montana Capitol Tuesday, where he was the president of the State Senate at this time last year, Tester said this is not the fight Americans want, and he called for the de-authorization of the 2002 resolution that gave the president the right to use force in Iraq.
"President Bush's intention is clear to leave our troops in the middle of a bloody civil war until he leaves office," he said. "I can no longer give the President the benefit of the doubt that he will end the Iraq war."
For Democrats, even as they disagree on how to respond, that is the bottom line. As more Republican lawmakers come to the same conclusion, so too will the war come to its end. It'll be clear then who will have won.