THE POLITICAL BATTLE OVER THE WAR

by David P. Rebovich “Horrendous mistakes have been made. That’s why I called for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. We need a new head of the Department of Defense to move ahead.” Who do you think made these bold and blunt statements during a nationally televised debate on MSNBC last Wednesday? U.S. Senator Robert Menendez or any of the incumbent Democratic congressmen or challengers on the ballot this fall? Well, it could have been any of these candidates, and Menendez has already demanded that Rumsfeld step down. But this was Tom Kean, Jr., Menendez’s opponent, who was trying to walk a fine line on one of the key issues in this year’s campaigns. Kean recognizes the political necessity to be critical about the war effort in Iraq. After all, the majority of New Jerseyans find fault with the President’s strategy. In addition, Menendez claims that Kean will simply be a “yes” man for the President’s unpopular and unsuccessful policies. But Kean also realizes that he cannot afford to alienate many members of his party’s base by criticizing the President personally or dismissing the war as unwarranted and harmful to the nation’s long-term interests. To pull off a huge upset on November 7th, Kean needs to sell himself as being strong on the war on terror but honest about the slow progress in Iraq and the need for some sort of change in America’s strategy there. Actually, that’s what both U.S. Senate candidates have concluded since the release of a FDU-Public Mind Poll at the end of August. That poll had Kean ahead by 4 points, which was within the margin of error but still good news for a Republican in this “blue” state. But the really interesting datum was that if the war in Iraq was taken out of people’s calculations about whom to vote for this fall, Kean would be leading Menendez by an impressive eleven percent. When the results of this FDU-Public Mind poll were released, what did the candidates do? Well, Kean tried to neutralize the issue of the war in Iraq by distancing himself somewhat from the President by calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation. Menendez, like his fellow Democrats in New Jersey and across the country, wants to keep the issue front and center and did two things. First he mocked Kean’s criticism of Rumsfeld and claimed that Kean still supports the war in Iraq and would continue to do so if he were elected. More importantly, Menendez recognized that as an urban Democrat who is liberal on social issues and on some fiscal ones, he could be pigeon-holed by his opponent as a “cut and run” Democrat whose political philosophy and anti-war views are too extreme for the nation and would jeopardize America’s security. In a tight race in which many New Jerseyans still have no firm knowledge about him or his policy positions, Menendez cannot afford to be colored as an ultra-liberal who simply wants to bring the troops home. Such a precipitous move, after all, may give the extremists a victory, further destabilize the Middle East, and embolden terrorists to make more attacks throughout the world. As such, Menendez would want to show voters that he has thought through his ideas carefully and that he has responsible alternatives to, not just criticisms of, the President’s policies. Last week the incumbent U.S. Senator did just that. At a State House press conference last Tuesday Menendez presented a plan for changing U.S. policy towards Iraq, one that does not, he believes, entail abandoning Iraq or the war on terror. The plan, supported by most congressional Democrats, recommends the following. American troops should be transitioned out of Iraq within a year, except for those training Iraqi security forces, performing special counter-terrorism operations or protecting American personnel and facilities. With Americans having a “certain date” to leave, Iraqis would have to take full responsibility for their security and future. In addition, other nations would have to help reconstructing Iraq and keeping it secure. The Senator also believes that the United States should maintain a troop presence somewhere near Iraq to be prepared to fight terrorism and to help provide regional security. A summit of NATO, EU, the UN and Middle Eastern nations can help develop ways to deal with violence, reconstruction, and oil production in Iraq. In addition, Menendez wants to bring all National Guard and Reserve troops home “…to help prevent another terrorist attack on our soil and to help during national disasters.” This proposal should appeal to folks who believe America’s involvement in Iraq has been a fiasco. It calls for bringing troops home, pursuing a multilateral strategy that the President’s critics wanted before we went to Iraq, and spending more funds hunting terrorists and protecting America. While few folks would disagree that more funds should be used for homeland security, it’s not clear that the new regime in Iraq has adequate forces in place to fend off terrorists and extremists bent on undermining the new regime. Nor has there been any indication that more nations are interested in joining with the United States to create a multinational force to maintain security and help in the expensive reconstruction of Iraq. Kean responded to Menendez by saying that this plan struck him as a “cut and run” strategy that would result in a humanitarian crisis in Iraq, i.e., the slaughter of thousands of more civilians, and the creation of a large haven for terrorists there. Nonetheless, Kean made it clear during that MSNBC interview that he did disagree with the President on Iraq and believes that more troops should have been deployed there initially. Kean also noted that he parts ways with Bush on stem cell research and environmental and energy policy and does not support the Administration’s excessive spending. In the meantime, the President gave four major speeches on the war in Iraq and terrorism. Bush realizes that unless he provides some political cover for Republicans on the ballot this fall, his party will likely lose its majority in the House and perhaps the Senate. That cover cannot, the President has apparently calculated, take the form of simply defending his past policies toward Iraq. Rather, he must explain the importance of winning in Iraq for the future well-being of the region and the United States. In his speeches the President recognized citizens’ impatience. However, he insisted that meaningful progress was being made in Iraq – witness the fact that control over Iraqi security forces was handed over to the new regime – and that the war there is part of the larger war on terror. He also revealed that America has thwarted several planned attacks on the nation since 9/11. The President’s optimism, even in the face of his low approval ratings and daily reports about more deaths of Iraqis and American troops, seemed like an attempt to generate some enthusiasm among GOP-base voters who are frustrated with the Administration’s performance and who may be thinking about staying home on Election Day. The discussion of the thwarted terrorist attacks was aimed at convincing other voters that while they may have questions about the Administration’s policy toward Iraq, the Republicans will do a better job protecting America than the Democrats who like to complain but can’t govern. However, the Democrats argue that the President is exaggerating successes and hinting at possible changes in policy because their party is threatening to win control of Congress. With control of even one chamber of Congress, the Democrats claim that the can make certain that in his final two years in office the President will take citizens’ concerns about Iraq, homeland security, and a host of other issues seriously. But the question remains, will Americans take the Democrats, including Menendez, seriously on the war and terrorism, or will they agree with the President that in the end his opponents are whiners and political opportunists? Well, on Thursday the Senate Democrats announced the Real Security Act of 2006 that recommends changing the course in Iraq, providing better tools to bring terrorists to justice, implementing the 9/11 Commission’s report, refocusing the war on terror, protecting the nation’s transportation system, and improving the intelligence community’s ability to fight terrorism. The plan is complex, costly and open to debate. In a campaign season, citizens may be skeptical about some of the recommendations the Democrats are making. But most are likely to believe that the President and his fellow Republicans in Washington, D.C. should give it a serious look. And that sentiment will help Democrats like New Jersey’s Menendez on Election Day. That is, of course, assuming the incumbent survives the investigation currently being conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. David P. Rebovich, is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine. He also is a member of CQPoltiics.com’s Board of Advisors that provides commentary on national political developments.

THE POLITICAL BATTLE OVER THE WAR