Harry Reid left Washington last month a frustrated but optimistic man. He is returning, it seems, a humbled one—at least as far as the Iraq debate goes.
It was at the end of July that just about every Republican in the Senate—plus Joe Lieberman—stood together to block a vote on a troop withdrawal plan, dealing a blow to Mr. Reid and his antiwar allies, who had championed the proposal. But Mr. Reid was also confident that the August Congressional recess would change the math, with irate constituents giving the holdout Republicans a piece of their mind about their unwillingness to end the war.
But recess is almost over now, and with the Senate reconvening on Sept. 4, Mr. Reid doesn’t seem nearly as sure of his hand. Of the Iraq debate that will soon resume, the majority leader told The Washington Post late last week that “I don’t think we have to think that our way is the only way.”
For Mr. Reid, that willingness to meet some hesitant Republicans halfway is a significant shift. After the Democratic withdrawal plan fizzled in July, he refused to allow consideration of any other Iraq proposals, even those that might have attracted more substantial bipartisan support. His calculation was that Republicans, come September, would feel so much pressure—from their consciences and from the political realities of the approaching election year—that they’d cave and back the Democratic withdrawal plan, potentially providing the votes to override President Bush’s inevitable veto and to enact a withdrawal over his head.
That hasn’t happened.
The problem for Mr. Reid—and, more broadly, for the antiwar movement—is that for the first time in more than a year, the pro-war crowd won control of the coverage of the war in August.
The shift really began on Monday, July 30, when Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, two analysts from the Brookings Institution who loudly backed the 2003 invasion, penned an op-ed in The New York Times titled, “A War We Just Might Win.” The pair, fresh from a visit to Iraq, actually wrote that the situation remained “grave” and that progress toward a political resolution among Iraq’s various factions was minimal. But they justified their headline by noting several specific military successes that were brought about by the troop surge and the new strategy of General David Petraeus.
That single op-ed kicked off a wave of “rethinking the surge” stories in print and on the air, which combined to form the backdrop for most news coverage of the war in August. Mainstream outlets dutifully reported, for instance, that U.S. forces were suddenly receiving cooperation from former insurgents in Anbar province, an area that had been among the bloodiest in Iraq. When Hillary Clinton acknowledged that some military progress had been made, headlines screamed that she had all but endorsed the surge—even though she had pointedly noted that the lack of political progress meant the surge was a failed policy.
The White House and its allies have done their best to amplify the coverage.
A group called Freedom’s Watch, whose chief spokesman is former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, launched a glitzy $15 million television ad campaign, using wounded veterans to promote the surge. The Fox News Channel produced a prime time documentary that extolled the virtues of the surge. Its title: “Victory or Retreat.”
And the Defense Department rolled out the red carpet for Congressional delegations visiting Iraq, an effort that bore public relations fruit when Democratic Congressman Brian Baird declared that he was surprised with the surge’s progress and would no longer back troop-withdrawal legislation.
Mr. Baird was previously anonymous outside his Washington state district, but his assessment placed his name in headlines in national publications.
This is not to say that August’s news coverage was devoid of serious questions about the war. A damning National Intelligence Estimate received significant attention, as did the leak of a Government Accountability Office report that found only three of 18 Iraqi political benchmarks have been met; then there was Republican Senator John Warner’s somewhat vague call for a limited troop withdrawal. But in August, war supporters were able to counter these developments by pointing to all of the “evidence” that the surge was working.
It may all be enough for the White House to keep wavering Republicans—like Indiana’s Richard Lugar or New Mexico’s Pete Domenici—from bolting in September.
From a purely political standpoint, there might still be a silver lining for Mr. Reid’s party. If the White House does prevail this month, it will cement Iraq as the predominant issue in the 2008 campaign. And, August’s news aside, the war is still a political loser for the G.O.P.
But for now, one thing seems clear: Harry Reid is no longer dealing from a position of strength.