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Surge’s Success Is Good News for the Democrats

When Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), one of the foremost critics of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq, recently returned from that country and proclaimed “the surge is working,” many were surprised. Democratic leaders fumed at Murtha, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, for appearing to undermine them politically by conceding the administration’s success on a key election issue.

But had they thought it through, those same critics might have reacted differently. Perhaps the most surprising outcome of recent developments in Iraq is this: From a purely political perspective, the success of the surge is good for the Democrats.

Here’s why.

Over the past couple of years, Democrats have made huge political gains by criticizing President Bush for both his decision to invade Iraq and his conduct of the occupation. These critiques are probably the single greatest factor in Democrats retaking the House and the Senate in 2006 and sending Bush’s approval ratings spiraling to historic lows.

But that critique has gone about as far as it can go. A significant majority of voters today agree with Democrats that the decision to invade Iraq was wrong, and that the conduct of the occupation and attempts to rebuild the country have been failures. A large percentage of Americans believe the Bush administration misled the country on Iraq in the first place. Those opinions are solidly held and highly unlikely to change. That debate is over.

Moreover, inveighing against the Iraq War is a tactic that is garnering ever-diminishing returns for Democrats. But until now, both pressure on Democratic politicians from their angry base and a parade of Bush administration failures in Iraq have encouraged Democrats to harp on Iraq as their flagship issue.

The recent success of the surge, while by no means solving the deeper problem we face in Iraq, has dulled Democrats’ criticisms, which in turn is allowing them to turn to other matters.

This presents a unique opportunity for Democrats. Having used the Iraq War to win over millions of Americans who were previously disposed to support the other side, they can now build on that momentum by turning to other issues to seal the deal with voters who remain on the fence.

To borrow a phrase, it’s the economy, stupid.

Two economic issues currently facing the country offer fertile ground for Democratic critiques of the Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration. The first is income inequality. Recent data show that income inequality in the United States has reached its worst level in more than 80 years, with the top 1 percent of income earners taking home more than 22 percent of American income. In other words, all of the progress of the postwar period in creating a prosperous middle class has evaporated.

The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is getting thinner. The country resembles the era of Wall Street gone wild, on the verge of the precipice that was the Great Depression. What better way to broaden the Democrats’ majority than to appeal to the 99 percent of Americans who make less than $350,000 a year and are getting the short end of this stick? What better time to do it than now, when Americans’ attention is turning away from Iraq and back to the situation at home?

The second economic issue is the national debt. Traditionally, this issue, while important from a financial perspective, has failed to fire the passion of the average voter. The numbers are too big and the effect on the average American too indirect. But here’s why it’s different today:

The country is sinking into a funk of economic fear as the housing credit debacle takes full hold. Millions of Americans are either facing foreclosure on their homes or scrounging to make payments on mortgages with interest rates about to skyrocket. The pain that comes from overspending and taking on too much debt is more widely felt today than it has been for decades. As the chickens of these past debt decisions come home to roost, this administration will find it ever harder to explain why it has permitted our government debt to grow to $9 trillion, a 50-year high measured as a percentage of our economy. They will have trouble answering the citizens who ask why they’ve allowed a situation to arise where they have to add to their personal debt payments an average of $3,000 per person per year just to pay interest on the government’s debt. Any Democratic politician worth his or her salt can easily draw this connection between individual suffering and governmental overspending.

Making these arguments will prove tremendously advantageous to Democrats for many reasons, but chief among them are two: First, without losing the gains they’ve made through criticism of the Iraq War, they will be able to expand their base by recapturing the economic middle class and building a broader, more stable constituency based on dealing with the future, not revisiting the past. Second, having already created an image of themselves as the more levelheaded purveyors of foreign policy, they can now show themselves to be the more responsible, trustworthy grown-ups on pocketbook issues, undoing the damage inflicted on them by decades of “tax and spend” name-calling.

Executed properly, this strategy could build a broad, reliable coalition that will keep Democrats in power for decades to come — a reversal of the tectonic shift that converted the South from Democratic to Republican territory and created an inherent political advantage for Republicans for the past few decades.

So, as Republicans exult and Democrats sulk in the apparent success of the surge in Iraq, look for the counterintuitive realization to suddenly dawn on them all — the success of the surge is politically bad for the Republicans and good for the Democrats.

Jonathan E. Meyer is a former counsel to Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and deputy assistant attorney general. He currently practices law in Washington, D.C.