Can Bush Win Support for His Iraq Plan?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are on Capitol Hill Thursday, seeking support for the president's Iraq plan. John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate, talks with Alex Chadwick and Luke Burbank.

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

The president's new plan for Iraq puts a lot of responsibility on the Iraqi government. And that's been greeted with skepticism by many on Capitol Hill. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to explain how it would work at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier today.

Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Secretary of State): We will have an opportunity, as this policy unfolds, to see whether or not in fact the Iraqis are living up to the assurances that they gave us.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): And what if they don't?

Ms. RICE: Senator, I don't think you go to Plan B. You work with plan A.

Senator KERRY: That's not a Plan B. That's a very critical issue here.

BURBANK: That was Massachusetts Senator John Kerry confronting Rice.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And Luke, joining me here in our Washington studio, John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate. John, a very active day in politics in the last 24 hours.

JOHN DICKERSON: Oh my God, it's extraordinary. It's moving under our feet. We have not only testimony from the administration. We also have to see, we're looking at this debate within the Democratic Party. And then the key - another key thing to watch is these Republicans. You've got several who've already come out against the surge, and that number is growing.

CHADWICK: You know, I just - we're going to go to the Republicans in a moment. But I just want to note that Slate online, Slate.com, has excellent coverage of this today. Several articles. In one of them, your editor, Jacob Weisberg, calls the Democrats political cowards. It sounds as though maybe they're developing a little backbone over in that caucus.

DICKERSON: Well, it depends. There's a debate in the House. This is a rough breakup of the debate. But in the House, they want to cut funding. And that's a little bit more robust. In the Senate they have a slower approach, which is to do this non-binding resolution. That's what Jacob argues is cowardice, because it really doesn't do anything to stop the president. And those who support this non-binding resolution would argue, no, what it does is it potentially creates a situation in which you get agreement between these Republicans who don't like the surge and Democrats and you create a public moment, a political moment where the president has to back down. So you do something that's bipartisan and weak that might be, in the end, more powerful than a cutting off of funding, which would be a more partisan move.

BURBANK: John, you've got Luke here in L.A. What about those Republicans? Generally speaking, what's their reaction been?

DICKERSON: Well, there have been several who've come out strongly against it. You've got Senator Chuck Hagel, Senator Brownback, Senator Snowe and Collins of Maine. And this number appears to be growing. And this is a problem for the White House, of course, because now they've (unintelligible) they can't say, well, this is just on the Democrats. You've got a growing number of Republicans now in the Senate who are coming out against.

CHADWICK: So we're going to be watching that. You're going to see more of this discussion between the White House and their own Republicans. I mean Sam Brownback is - that's someone they would count on.

DICKERSON: Well, that's right. And one of the political things to keep in mind here, of course, is you got 21 Republicans up in 2008 in the Senate. And those Republicans have to think very carefully. Norm Coleman is up for reelection. He's come out against this. John Sununu is up for a reelection. He's playing it very carefully. This is a political question for them, and they worry that a president who doesn't have any more political future, is kind of going off, and they have to keep their own interests in mind with respect to this.

CHADWICK: They have a very slim majority for the Democrats in the Senate. But the Republicans, in order to stop the Senate from getting anything done, they need 41 votes. They might not have 41 votes on this.

DICKERSON: Well, that's the big worry. They can try and filibuster, but if they lose enough Republicans it won't work.

CHADWICK: We'll be back with more of John Dickerson in a moment on DAY TO DAY.

(Soundbite of music)

BURBANK: This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Luke Burbank.

CHADWICK: And I'm Alex Chadwick in Washington. Again, with John Dickerson, chief political correspondent at the online magazine Slate. Surely, John, you watched the president's speech last night. What did you think about the content of the speech? We haven't really asked you that. And the kind of the tenor of it?

DICKERSON: Well, let's start with the superficial, the tenor. It was contrite. He admitted mistakes. He was also more candid about what's coming. The architects of this plan, this surge plan, have been quite candid. Very bloody, going to get worse before it gets better. It's going to be long. The president wasn't that candid. But he got - he sort of got there. And this a president who's not been very candid in his Iraq speeches.

What was extraordinary, though, was the amount of - the amount that he's putting on the shoulders of the Iraqi government. And there there were no caveats, there were no warnings. Suddenly he talked about the Iraqi government and what it could achieve as if the past had not happened. And this was extraordinary. This strategy relies on competence from the Iraqi government we have not seen. And it also relies on - he said at one point - that Prime Minister Maliki would not tolerate sectarian violence.

Well, this is extraordinary. As if Maliki could do such a thing. And that is the big question in this speech. And then, of course, then the follow-up question is, well, what if he doesn't? And that wasn't in the speech either. In briefings, senior administration officials have said, well, Maliki's feeling some internal pressure within his democracy. Well, in Iraq they have - when they feel unhappiness with their leaders, they sometimes take it out in the streets rather than waiting peacefully for an election.

So they're not very clear, in public, anyway, about what the pressure is on the Maliki government. In private, senators, Republicans I talked to that the president briefed, said that he has - the president has, in no uncertain terms, told Maliki this is the last chance. But does that really mean troops are on the way out? This is the big open question in this. You heard in the clip earlier, Secretary of State Rice is not anxious to talk about what kind of pressure they're putting on Maliki.

You can understand this from a diplomatic standpoint because she doesn't want to make him look like a puppet. On the other hand, it's a tough thing to sell a program of this magnitude that's not very popular without answering the question, what's going to make the Iraqis step up?

BURBANK: John, Alex mentioned during the last segment about Sam Brownback in Iraq and this general Republican opposition at least from some quarters to the White House. You're talking about this being a tough sales job. How big of an impediment is that going to be?

DICKERSON: Well, for Brownback it's interesting, of course, because he's a declared presidential candidate, or he is thinking about running for president. And he is the first of that group of Republicans who want to come after Bush, who has said no to the surge. McCain and Giuliani, and former Governor Romney in Massachusetts are all supporting the surge. McCain said he would have preferred more troops, but when he heard the final number, he called up General Petraeus, who will be in charge of running the show in Iraq, and Petraeus said he felt this was a number that he could live with, and that the president had assured him if he needed more troops, that he would get them right away, which is interesting.

On the Democratic side, we have an interesting split here. We have all of them against the notion of the surge, but the new fault line is which of them will press for this cutting off of funding. Senators Kerry and former Senator Edwards are pushing to stop the funding, which is the stronger position.

Barack Obama, this morning in remarks, seemed to duck that question. He's against the surge but won't come down on this position. Activists, liberal activists within the Democratic Party are pushing for a reduction in funding or a limitation of funding. And the positioning has to happen now. Senator Clinton, the one everybody watches, has said she's against the surge, but it's not clear where she is on the funding.

CHADWICK: John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate here with us in Washington. John, thank you again.

DICKERSON: Thank you.

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