Democrats’ momentum on their anti-war effort has stalled abruptly, ending weeks of hand-wringing by the White House.
The reason? A convincing four-star general, an activist group that overplayed its hand and a plain-spoken defense secretary who doesn’t bother to defend the 2003 Iraq invasion.
“I think it’s better today,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., of the war. “I think we’re on a better path than we were.”
While a longtime skeptic of President Bush’s troop buildup in Iraq, Alexander joined his GOP colleagues in blocking each of the Democrats’ three anti-war bills last week.
His vote and those of his colleagues dealt a demoralizing blow last week to Democrats, who had hoped that by September more Republicans would have broken party ranks. Republican votes are crucial to Democrats because they lack a veto-proof majority in Congress.
Above all, GOP members say they were deeply impressed by the recent testimony of Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq.
“Gen. Petraeus’ report was the most critical and decisive,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. “It was what he was able to tell us factually that . . . we have a realistic chance of success.”
Another factor in GOP unity, party officials say, was the advertisement in the New York Times, paid for by the liberal activist group MoveOn.org. The full-page ad – which taunted Petraeus as “General Betray Us” and accused him of distorting the facts of the war – served as a rallying point for Republicans.
Even with several GOP members wanting troops out faster than Petraeus recommended, the ad helped Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell drive home his point: Voting to bring troops home was a vote against a popular and seasoned uniformed officer.
“Let’s take sides. Gen. Petraeus or MoveOn.org. Which one are we going to believe?” asked McConnell, R-Ky., at one point during the debate.
Also a major factor in the White House’s ability to shore up support for the war was Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He has launched an aggressive outreach campaign in recent days and found favor among Republican moderates who chafed under the sharp style of his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld.
“I can just say that Gates has an even-tempered demeanor and he tends to give us the facts without a lot of adjectives,” said Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., after leaving a meeting last week between Gates and 23 House Republicans, mostly moderates concerned about the lack of progress in Iraq.
Arguably his most endearing trait to many in Congress is his refusal to debate the merits of the Iraq invasion – something lawmakers like Chris Shays of Connecticut say they have no patience for.
“The most important thing you have is your credibility. And when you’re wrong on Iraq, you lose your credibility,” said Shays, whose initial support of the invasion nearly cost him his House seat.
With Rumsfeld, said Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., the justification of the war was difficult to take off the table. With Gates, “he steps up to the plate, and says ‘Let’s put that aside right now because we’re here now,’ “‘ he said.
In the Senate, where just a few Republican votes can tip the outcome, Gates allied himself with Sen. John Warner to make his case against one Democratic proposal in particular – a measure by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that would have guaranteed troops more time at home.
Widely seen as the Democrats’ best shot, the bill was rejected by a 56-44 vote, falling four votes short of the 60 needed to pass.
Two days before the vote, Gates traveled to Williamsburg in Warner’s home state to speak with the senator at a democracy forum. Warner, R-Va., returned to Washington to announce he could no longer support the proposal, despite having voted for it in July.
Gates made other personal appeals, including a phone call to Alexander and other senators warning them the bill would be disastrous for the military.
Hours before the vote, the Pentagon dispatched two senior Army generals – Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, director of operations on the Joint Staff, and Lt. Gen. James Lovelace, a deputy Army chief of staff – to brief lawmakers on the potential consequences of the bill.
Among those attending were Sens. Alexander, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Bob Corker of Tennessee – three Republicans who said they had been considering supporting the measure, but who ultimately rejected it.
Democrats say the fight is far from over. Public opinion still remains firmly in their corner, and they believe as the 2008 elections inch closer, Republicans will be in a tighter spot.
But for now, the White House seems to have bought itself some time.
“Am I satisfied with where we are? No,” said Murkowski, R-Alaska. But “are we all moving in the same direction? Probably.”
Anne Flaherty of The Associated Press covers military and foreign affairs on Capitol Hill.