A Fighting Retreat?

For the Republicans, there are two ways out of Iraq. They can either go out like Eisenhower or like Nixon.

As the first Republican to occupy the White House since the coming of the New Deal, Dwight Eisenhower could have chosen to divide the public and try to roll back Franklin Roosevelt's handiwork. In fact, he didn't give that option a moment's consideration. Social Security and unions, he concluded, were here to stay; any attempt to undo them, he wrote, would consign the Republicans to permanent minority status. Ike also ended the Korean War without attacking Democrats in the process.

His vice president, Richard Nixon, became president largely because of the public's massive discontent with the Vietnam War. We now know that Nixon and Henry Kissinger had no illusions that the war could be won, and Nixon probably could have withdrawn U.S. troops in a way that didn't polarize the public. Such a stance, however, ran counter to Nixon's deepest instincts. For Nixon, politics was about dividing the electorate and demonizing enemies. Even as he drew down U.S. forces, he did all he could to inflame the war's already flammable opponents in the hope that however much the people might dislike the war, they would dislike its critics more.

Today's Republicans now must choose between Eisenhower's way and Nixon's way. If they're like Ike, they will recognize that the war is lost and that public support for it isn't likely to be rekindled. A USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted over the weekend shows more than 60 percent support for a congressional resolution opposing President Bush's escalation. Even reliably conservative Republicans who are up for reelection in 2008 from shaky states or districts are bailing on the war (New Hampshire Senator John Sununu is questioning the surge) or on their careers (Colorado Senator Wayne Allard just announced he's not going to run again). To continue dispatching and keeping troops in a country wracked by an intra-Islamic civil war, looked at from this perspective, only guarantees that November's Republican defeat will be a prelude to 2008's Republican rout.

A Nixonian perspective also acknowledges that the war cannot be won but believes that blame for the defeat can still, somehow, be placed on the Democrats. If only the Democrats can be held responsible for defunding the troops, if only the U.S. presence in Iraq can be prolonged until it falls to the next administration (which may be Democratic) to end it, if only enough Republicans on the Hill can be dissuaded from voting with the Democrats' attempts to rein in the war, if only the surge engenders some wild and crazy antiwar demonstrations, then maybe, just maybe, there's a way to keep the war going without destroying the GOP. These options may seem a bit far-fetched, but who believes that Karl Rove hasn't at least thought about them in his more contemplative moments?

How Rove defines his job these days is an interesting question. Since November, he's no longer the Republicans' master political strategist -- not just because November was such a debacle but also because the political interests of the Bush White House, congressional Republicans, and the Republican presidential candidates are de-aligned and in some cases even adversarial. The man who'd hoped to make Bush the second coming of William McKinley -- a harbinger of a long-term Republican realignment -- now handles a president whose electoral impact on his own party could be nearer to Herbert Hoover's.

For a time, at least, the Republicans' presidential hopefuls can't really rule out a Nixonian tack. For New York's reflexively combative Rudy Giuliani, such politics may come naturally. But the need to win support among Republican primary voters -- the last group in American politics still sticking with Bush and his war -- could compel any number of primary candidates to bash Democrats for their dovishness. Besides, will Bush and Vice President Cheney really cease to defend their war even if the Republicans' eventual nominee wants to wrap it up? If Republican congressional leaders tell Bush that his war has no more support, will Bush and Cheney fold, or will they insist on continuing the war with invocations of executive power or any other doctrine that might work? (Memo to David Addington: The divine right of kings? The infield fly rule?)

The guy to watch in all this is the pooh-bah of Fox News, Roger Ailes. Nixon's onetime aide guides a TV network that is Nixonian to its bones -- Fox's raison d'être is to bash liberals, real or imagined. But Ailes can't be insensible to the war's effects on Republican electoral prospects. If Fox News were to break with Bush on Iraq, that would be proof positive that even the Nixonians believe there's no way, politically, they can salvage this miserable war.

Harold Meyerson is acting executive editor of The American Prospect. A version of this column originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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