Partisan Obsession Dominates Iraq Debate

It may no longer be possible to have an honest, even-handed debate on what course in Iraq best serves American interests. And for that we have to thank the degree of partisanship that has come to dominate our politics, in Congress and beyond.

In structuring the most recent debates on Iraq in both House and Senate, both parties have been visibly motivated by their desire to turn the crisis of our time into campaign material for the November election season.

Democrats see it as a chance to exploit war weariness and perceived weakness in the Bush presidency. Their goal is to gain seats and perhaps regain control of Congress, and in any event to punish the Bush White House for what they see as its manifold transgressions.

For their part, Republicans see this moment in Iraq as a chance to reprise their winning strategy from the 2002 and 2004 campaigns — stressing threats to national security and portraying Democrats as soft on terrorism. If the U.S. signals a willingness to withdraw, they say, terrorists will make Iraq a safe haven from which to attack us.

That is why the majority Republicans crafted a House resolution supporting the current Bush administration mission in Iraq and specifically denouncing any timetable for withdrawal.

It did not matter that many in the Republican ranks may have their own views of the situation and their own thoughts on how best to rescue the U.S. from it. Nor did it matter that such Republicans may have wanted to discuss their ideas with like-minded people from both parties. The order of the day was unqualified support for the White House and all-out confrontation with the other party.

Democrats, for their part, were stuck with either endorsing what most regard as a failed policy or endorsing a policy easily caricatured as "cut and run." The basic purpose of the exercise was to force such a choice, to split the body into two ultra-simplified camps and facilitate the broadest form of attack ads.

In the Senate, Republican leaders quickly called for debate on a ready-to-hand Democratic proposal to set a deadline on withdrawal. It suited their purposes all the more that the sponsor was Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee against the president in 2004. What better way to revisit the question posed by that election, and recall the voters' response?

So, for the makers of attack ads, the Iraq debate is going just fine. This fall it will be "Bush's failed policy" on one hand versus "Democrats cut and run" on the other.

For the rest of us, this debate leaves everything to be desired. By pushing the parties apart, and working to keep them as far apart as possible, congressional leaders are failing to do what their best predecessors have considered their most important job.

Debate in Congress has always been contentious, even heated. It has always featured parties, factions, even personal rivalries that divided the membership. But on the most important questions, particularly those involving war and foreign policy, the best leaders have seen it as their duty to find a vital center.

This vital center has been composed of individuals capable of risk and sacrifice — individuals culled from both parties. They wanted their side to win the next election, of course, but they also wanted control of Congress to mean something more than just beating the other side. They want the institution of Congress to matter, and to serve something like the interests of the nation as a whole.

By organizing outward from this center, skillful leaders have been able to build consensus — particularly in times of crisis. A recent example was the debate in House and Senate prior to the Persian Gulf War of 1991. At the time, Saddam Hussein's troops had overrun and occupied neighboring Kuwait. President George H. W. Bush had dispatched a major force to the Gulf region, preparing for a counterstrike.

The first President Bush did not ask for a declaration of war or a congressional show of support, but Congress undertook a serious and substantive debate nonetheless. In the end, a bipartisan majority in both chambers backed the Republican president, even though both chambers were controlled by Democrats.

It was only 15 years ago, but it now seems part of another era.

Ron Elving co-hosts It's All Politics, a weekly podcast, with NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin.

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