He who frames the issue tends to determine the outcome of the vote. That's a basic rule of political consultants that applies to elections and to the legislative process, as well.
In July, when Congress was considering legislation limiting American military involvement in Iraq, the issue was framed -- by Democratic leaders and the mainstream media -- as whether Americans should continue to sacrifice life and treasure in a futile attempt to carry on a war that was already lost. It took some considerable shrewdness and steadfastness by Republican congressional leaders to prevent a stinging repudiation of the Bush administration.
They may have been helped by Republican members' recoiling against the harsh partisanship of Democratic leaders -- just as Democratic solidarity may be increased by what is perceived as the harsh partisanship of Republicans.
Now, as Congress awaits the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the issue seems to be framed in a different way. Democrats as harshly partisan as Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin and as steadfastly opposed to military action in Iraq as Washington Rep. Brian Baird have had to admit or report that Petraeus' "surge" strategy and forward-moving tactics have produced military progress in Iraq. We are making gains that even strong supporters of the administration were unwilling to claim in July. For Baird, this means Congress should support the surge and not attempt to recall troops now.
For Durbin, it means that the focus should be on lack of political progress by the Iraqi Congress. But the recent agreement between Iraqi parliamentary leaders may undercut that view, as well. The central figure in the debate this month is likely to be Petraeus. He was universally praised when he was nominated to the Iraq command early this year and was confirmed unanimously by the Senate.
He's been taking some sniping from the left-wing blogosphere lately but, as the author of the military's counterinsurgency manual and as an uncommonly articulate speaker, he seems likely to gain general respect. The public comments he's made so far make it clear that he won't present a totally positive report. But they also make it clear that he sees genuine military progress. Parts of Iraq that looked irretrievably lost to insurgents and al-Qaida now appear pacified and normal.