This would pose, as House Democratic Whip James Clyburn said in late July, "a real big problem for us." Antiwar activists have been running ads and holding rallies to persuade Republican members to vote for a timetable for withdrawal. As the issue was framed in July, they had reason to hope these efforts would be successful. But if the issue is framed as continuing a policy that has had military success, the pressure will shift to the other side.
Clyburn conceded that if the issue were framed that way, he would have a hard time persuading Blue Dog Democrats to vote for withdrawal. Democrats were hoping they might get up to 300 votes in the House for such a stance. Now it looks as though they may get only 200 -- less than a majority.
History gives a little guidance here. Harry Truman's job ratings hovered around 25 percent between the firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in April 1951 and the November 1952 election because he offered no hope of anything but bloody military stalemate -- much bloodier than Iraq -- in Korea. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, fared well with the voters in 1972 when American troops were being withdrawn with the communists seemingly defeated in Vietnam. American voters are not so much antiwar as anti-stalemate -- and anti-defeat. Between stalemate and withdrawal, they'll lean to withdrawal.
Between victory and withdrawal, however, they'll usually pick victory.
Will that be seen as the choice facing Congress this month? Efforts to undercut a positive Petraeus assessment are underway, such as a pessimistic draft of a Government Accountability Office report on political progress leaked to the Washington Post last week. But Democratic leaders today don't have the huge majorities they had in 1975 when they blocked the Air Force from repelling the communist invasion of South Vietnam. They may persist in proclaiming that the surge isn't working. But the facts seem to be framing the issue another way.