Congress this week approved spending that will fund the war in Iraq through the first quarter of next year. For now at least, the battle over whether to end the war through the power of the purse if over. Part of the reason the war-funding measure passed is because Democrats concluded that the president was winning the public-relations battle over what it means to support the troops.
Professing to support the troops is practically an article of faith in America's political discourse. Like the ubiquitous American flag lapel pin, politicians of all stripes tend to start off speeches about the war in Iraq declaring their support:
"Well first of all, we all support our troops," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
"Our troops have performed brilliantly in Iraq," said Sen. Barack Obama.
"How 'bout if we actually support the troops," said John Edwards.
All three presidential hopefuls have promised to begin some type of withdrawal from Iraq, if elected. So have most Democrats and a handful of Republicans in Congress. And until this week, several leading Democrats promised to end the war by shutting down the funding.
The danger is that, while they might succeed, they could lose the battle of public opinion. That's because President Bush has so publicly kept up the campaign for war funding.
"I often hear that war critics oppose my decisions but still support the troops. Well, I take them at their word, and here's their chance to show it," he has said.
He adds: "It's unconscionable to deny funds to our troops in harm's way because some in Congress want to force a self-defeating policy."
Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia argues that the president has successfully used the bully pulpit to conflate two different ideas.
"It was clearly a strategy of this administration from the very beginning to create the implication that if you disagreed with the administration you were somehow undermining our military people," Webb said.
But many Republicans who support the war regard that type of argument as a genuine belief, not a political strategy.
Recently retired Rep. Dennis Hastert, who served as Speaker of the House, made the case earlier this year: "It is not enough for this House to say, 'We support our troops.' To the men and women in the field in harm's way, the statement rings hollow if we don't also say we support their mission."
When retired Army Gen. Bill Odom hears things like that, he blows his top. He recently wrote an essay calling for a redefinition of what it means to support the troops: "What I'm suggesting is for the better interest of the U.S. military and all of its troops, we shouldn't have them deployed in this strategically ill-advised way. Now, if you can say that getting your troops out of a strategically ill-advised deployment is not supporting the troops, then I don't understand the common sense of supporting the troops."
When troops were asked whether they felt "supported" by the American public, a group of a dozen soldiers in Iraq said yes.
But all of them, including Chief Warrant Officer Mary Rone, a helicopter pilot from Berkeley, Calif., said that support is somewhat superficial.
"I think sometimes soldiers feel like possibly people back home are not thinking about it, and I think that's the biggest form of not supporting — is forgetting what's going on. I don't think you have to support the mission."
The president may disagree, and he'll no doubt make his case again — probably around late March when, once again, he'll ask for more funding for the war in Iraq.