Conservatives call for Bush to emphasize 'leaving Iraq'
The Hill
By Manu Raju
July 25, 2007

Some conservative activist leaders, fearing voter anger with the Iraq war, want President Bush and GOP leaders to begin emphasizing that U.S. troops will be "leaving Iraq" to give Republicans cover as they head into a tough political landscape in 2008.

To assuage an angry public, the activists argue that the White House soon needs to articulate clearly that the war will end. That tactic will help Republican presidential and congressional candidates focus on the domestic issues that could energize the base and win over independents, they say.

By talking openly about the war's conclusion, Republicans could blunt criticism about supporting an open-ended conflict in Iraq while continuing to attack Democrats for "surrendering" by supporting a specific date for withdrawing troops from Iraq, the activists contend. Pointing to an end to the war will also help reshape the debate about what happens to Iraq after the U.S. leaves, an area that conservatives feel has been overshadowed by Capitol Hill's continued focus on whether to withdraw troops from the region.

"The one-paragraph explanation of what we're doing in Iraq has to have the word 'leaving' in there," said Grover Norquist, a conservative leader and the head of Americans for Tax Reform. "If Bush would move to 'leaving,' then other people, including the people and the [Democrats], move to a more extreme position than you have, because they have put themselves in the anti-Bush position."

Norquist, who is meeting next week with White House political adviser Karl Rove, said Bush should reject a timeline and instead emphasize that he expects "fewer" troops in the region. If the administration changes nothing, it will allow Democrats to charge that the strategy isn't working, which resonates with the public, added Norquist.

This month's Iraq debate, in which most congressional Republicans voted against measures to pull back troops by next April, compelled the Democrats to portray the GOP as more interested in siding with an unpopular president pursuing an unsuccessful war strategy. But conservatives say the president could help Republicans by reshaping the debate by talking about the aftermath of the war.

"What [Bush] has to do is show that he's on a path that puts us where the public wants to be, which is not having ourselves being perceived as having the whole weight of this war on our shoulders," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a columnist for The Hill.

Keene said Bush's Iraq policy has generated public backlash because of the president's shifting rationale for the invasion. Keene said he expected Bush to be talking more about leaving Iraq. But he said the president should take the issue directly to Democrats by asking them to spell out their plans for a post-war Iraq. "That's the real question that seems to [be] in the back of people's minds," he said.

The issue has been openly debated at a regular Wednesday morning meeting hosted by Norquist's group and attended by conservative leaders, who fear the 2008 elections may mirror the anti-GOP backlash of the 2006 midterms.

Still, there is hardly a consensus in conservative circles on how to deal with Iraq. The White House is trying to convince the public that leaving Iraq would further strengthen al Qaeda and roil the region, and that withdrawal can occur only after the region stabilizes. That stance still has broad backing within conservative circles, as does Bush's call to wait until September, when the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, reports on the status of the war and the troop surge Bush announced in January.

Some conservatives reject contentions that the GOP should start to talk about leaving Iraq, saying the public needs to be reminded regularly that Iraq is crucial to stabilizing the Middle East and is the front line against al Qaeda. They say Republicans would be attacked for flip-flopping on the most dominant issue facing the country.

"Emphasizing leaving Iraq is a loser," said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "So many Republicans have been supporting the strategy for so long that it would just indicate they had a wrong position if they all of a sudden did an about-face."

But Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the complexion of the Iraq debate will "fundamentally" change over the next 18 months because troop levels likely will decrease by next year.

"It is unconceivable to me that there would be the same number of troops in Iraq as there are today, and as the size of the force gets smaller, the nature of the mission will inevitably change," Cole said. "The nature of our role and the level of our involvement will be changing."

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said voters would see right through any contention by Bush that the U.S. would leave Iraq without setting a timeline for withdrawing troops.

"What you find now is a lot of Republicans who are talking the talk but not walking the walk," Van Hollen said. "What we hope voters will do is hold them accountable and say, 'If you think we really need a change in direction in Iraq, which we've argued that we need, then you also have to vote that way back in Washington.'"

Similarly, liberal groups slammed that notion, saying the public would make supporters of the war pay for the continued bad news from Iraq.

"Politicians tend to overestimate the value of their spin," said Tom Mattzie, Washington director of the liberal advocacy group

Sen. Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who has called for a troop withdrawal but resisted setting a specific date for withdrawal, said Republicans will "have to fend for themselves on Iraq" and face "terrain that may not be very favorable for them, any more than 2006 was, for that matter."

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