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.
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.