With their return from the August recess overshadowed by scandal, Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill are in the unusual position of looking forward to this week’s start of a new debate on Iraq as a way to turn the page and regain their political footing.
Congressional Republicans believe the Iraq debate will give them their next best chance to go on the offensive — and possibly score some points with swing voters — against Democrats. Previously a difficult topic for Republicans to negotiate, they now see the Iraq War as an opportunity to make the case for some success in U.S. policy.
Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker will make their report to the House today assessing the situation in Iraq and the impact that President Bush’s troop “surge” has had there.
Petraeus, the U.S. armed forces commander in Iraq, and Crocker will present their report to the Senate on Tuesday, the same day that Republicans in the chamber are set to hold a political strategy session to discuss new polling data on Iraq and hone the party’s messaging efforts.
GOP Senators will meet behind closed doors with Republican pollster and Roll Call Contributing Writer David Winston and strategist Richard Thau to go over recent public opinion data designed to test the effectiveness of Republican message points.
The meeting comes on the heels of a similar Senate session in July, where Republicans sought to kick-start a longer-term effort to refurbish the party brand.
Recent internal Republican polling shows the GOP may have more support for their position on Iraq than in the past and that key independent voters appear willing to support a short-term continuation of the current troop levels, if that is what Petraeus proposes.
However, independent voters remain evenly split on whether a stable government in Iraq is achievable at this point, and if Petraeus does not make a clear recommendation on whether to maintain current troop levels, 52 percent of independents polled in an August survey by Winston said they agree with some Members of Congress who want to begin the immediate withdrawal of troops.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who is hosting Tuesday’s Senator messaging session, said Republicans must recognize they need to take hold of a principle-based message and agenda, even in the wake of recent negative headlines and unexpected events such as the Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) scandal. He added that a key opportunity to do that will be over the next two weeks when the Senate debates the success of the troop surge in Iraq.
“My focus is on what can we do as a Republican Senate to remind people why they used to really like Republicans,” Kyl said.
Kyl said his aim in the coming weeks and months will be to show Republicans that if they can refocus and unify around a singular message, they can “have a significant impact on public opinion.” Focus groups and polling show that Americans widely share Republican viewpoints but simply haven’t been convinced that the GOP can deliver, he noted.
Meanwhile, House Republicans say they feel good about their Members’ relatively unified stand on the war, a result in part of recent evidence that some progress is being made in Iraq.
“Success breeds success,” said House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.).
The internal polling data has shown that independent voters — the same bloc who swung sharply toward Democrats in the 2006 elections — haven’t given up all hope on success in Iraq yet.
“They haven’t closed their eyes and ears,” Putnam said.
However, not all of the data is good. According to the Winston survey, 57 percent of self-identified independent voters said it would be an unsatisfactory result if the Petraeus report shows that while the military has made good progress in Iraq, the political situation remains unstable and Iraqis are not yet able to take over their own security.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) argued that Members returned from the August recess strengthened in their resolve to stand together on Iraq.
“Members don’t feel like they got beaten up” when they were at home, Cole said.
House Republicans are pushing a set of talking points that stress Petraeus’ background as a respected leader, an attempt at pushing back on what they say are Democratic-led attempts to vilify Petraeus as a mouthpiece of Bush.
They also argue that the debate over whether the surge is working is over, and therefore Members should come together on a bipartisan basis because of a shared interest in finding a right direction for success in Iraq. They also continue to argue that the Democratic leadership is politically invested in failure.
But Democrats, armed with their own polling data, continue to argue that the war is a losing issue for Republicans and their united stance on the issue will be to their detriment in the end.
“This is the one issue where they have bent over backwards to maintain their unity,” one Democratic leadership aide said. “It’s the one thing they win on, but it’s the biggest loser for them.”
For Democrats, one of their best messages continues to be that of parity between funding the war and funding domestic programs. The issue scores well among independents, moderates and swing voters.
Voters’ “biggest concern is that we won’t have resources here at home because we’ve spent them in Iraq,” said one Democratic leadership aide.
Meanwhile, the 2008 presidential election is looming large for both parties over the Iraq debate this week.
“I think this is as much a possible trap for Democrats politically as it is for Republicans,” Cole said.
Iraq aside, Republicans said they recognize they have to focus on how to get beyond previous setbacks and reconnect with a government-wary public. And, GOP Senators and House Members argued, they cannot sit back and wait until their party selects a presidential nominee to try to paint a contrast to the Democratic majority.
Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the Senate Republican Conference vice chairman, said the GOP sees this period of time as the “pre-Hillary phase” — or the window of time before the 2008 presidential election — where it needs to try to re-establish priorities and refocus its message. As part of that effort, Cornyn has been helping lead a team of Senators to try to advance GOP positions on issues such as the Iraq War and fiscal discipline.
“Once the party chooses its nominee, the clouds will part and the sun will come out and we’ll move clearly into the debate,” Cornyn said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) said Republicans’ “branding problems” are based on numerous events, not the least of which involve corruption and the GOP’s management of the war and response to Hurricane Katrina.
Those events may not reverse themselves, but he believes the party has new opportunities to make their case, especially as improvements occur in Iraq.
“The clouds won’t blow away until we show that our involvement in Iraq has been worth it and is part of a global struggle,” Graham said, adding that earlier GOP failures in Iraq, corruption and Katrina “could diminish, and if that happens, the Democrat problems begin to get highlighted and the gap closes.”