Politics with Ron Elving: Iraq War Discord Grows

Madeleine Brand talks with NPR senior Washington, D.C., editor Ron Elving about the politics of the Iraq war. President Bush's Texas ranch is still the site of an anti-war protest vigil, even though Cindy Sheehan, the mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq and the protest leader, has temporarily left. Also, two new critics of the president's Iraq war strategy are speaking out: Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), who are both considering presidential runs in 2008.

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Here in the US, President Bush takes a break from his August vacation this week to give two speeches on the Iraq War. Today, he's in Salt Lake City for the annual meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, but he won't receive a hero's welcome from the city's mayor, a Democrat who's leading a protest against the president's Iraq policy. More politicians are now speaking out against the war, and joining me to discuss the politics of that war is NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

And, Ron, the anti-war movement got a big shot in the arm from Cindy Sheehan. That's the mom who's camped out at the president's Crawford ranch. What kind of effect is her vigil having on national politics?

RON ELVING reporting:

Madeleine, it's not having much visible effect on the president, or on his attitude or on his administration or on the Iraq policy. But it's had a highly visible effect in the media. Cindy Sheehan has become the most talked-about woman in the country in the month of August. And that gives her a kind of symbolic importance, and she's also been able to galvanize a lot of the opposition to the war. And in the end, though, I think you'd have to say Mr. Bush's problem with Iraq is not Cindy Sheehan; it's Iraq.

BRAND: Mm-hmm. And perhaps sagging public opinion numbers?

ELVING: Well, this has been a tough time for the president, the last several months, because of the deteriorating situation in Iraq. And we're now seeing numbers that are the worst really of the entire period of the war on terrorism. And then, of course, when we shifted to the war in Iraq, we've got 57 percent of the people in the country saying it's not making us more safe. We've got 57 percent saying it's time to take some of our troops out, 56--virtually the same percentage telling Gallup, for example, that the war is going badly and 54 percent telling Gallup that the war was a mistake and that it wasn't worth it to be in there in the first place.

BRAND: And we have some tough talk from within the Republican Party for this war, for the president's policy, from Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, comparing Iraq to Vietnam recently and calling for the troops to be brought home. Is that a problem for Mr. Bush?

ELVING: Chuck Hagel has been a problem for the president for some time. He has not been with the program on the war. And because he's a decorated veteran and because he's not taking the line that you can't criticize the war because that would be non-support of the troops, that makes it difficult for the administration, especially because he is a Vietnam veteran, and that makes the quagmire talk stick. And we also need to say that because he is from Nebraska, he speaks for Nebraska and to Nebraskans, that has a special meaning. Nebraska isn't quite as red a state as Utah or Idaho, where the president's also going to speak, but it's awfully close.

BRAND: And, Ron, let's turn to the Democrats, recent comments by Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. He's proposed a target date of December 31st, 2006, for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Is that drawing any support?

ELVING: From some anti-war Democrats, yes. Some of those people are going to applaud that idea, but others are going to say, `No, that's too long. The end of 2006 is too far away.' And some other Democrats are going to say that all deadlines and all timetables are a bad idea. So the Democrats are not united on this, and it shows just how difficult it is to come up with a coherent opposition strategy. And in the end, that's what empowers presidents. That's why it's possible for them to go forward with their strategy. And it probably, in the end, won't be the Democrats who turn this around with respect to Iraq; it will be disillusioned Republicans and Independents.

BRAND: Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor. You can read his political column Watching Washington at our Web site, npr.org.

Thanks, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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