Iraq as a Uniter and Divider

The Iraq war has been a highly divisive issue for Republicans and Democrats. Now there are signs that it has become a unifying force for some members of the two parties.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

National security and Iraq have been divisive issues in this country too, of course. NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks very much for being with us.

RON ELVING: My pleasure.

SIMON: Right after September 11th, national security actually pulled a great deal of the country together, didn't it?

ELVING: You know, Scott, we tend to forget the degree to which that was true. So much fox hole camaraderie on Capitol Hill that the Republicans and Democrats actually stood on the steps of the Capitol Building together and sang.

(Soundbite of song, "God Bless America")

Unidentified Group: God bless America, my home sweet home.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIMON: But things changed. When?

ELVING: With respect to national security, the bloom was on for some months. But in 2002, around about the summer, we started to debate the Department of Homeland Security, which was a suggestion the Democrats made, the president initially resisted. But then he made it his own, made some changes in it.

And when the Democrats resisted his changes, then what really tore it was when we started talking about Iraq. And the administration started talking about weapons of mass destruction, mushroom clouds on the horizon. We had a vote in the fall of 2002 on authorizing the president to have a free hand in Iraq, essentially a license to invade. Two-thirds of the House Democrats voted against that resolution. Twenty-seven Democrats voted against it in the Senate. And as a result, the entire election of the fall of 2002 became between the Republicans who were in favor of supporting the war on terrorism whatever the president wanted to make, and in effect included Iraq, was fine, and the Democrats who seemed to be opposed.

SIMON: When it came to the 2004 election, national security was certainly foremost in the minds of voters.

ELVING: Yes it was, and the Republicans worked very hard to keep it so. Karl Rove was telling Republicans, this is what we need to run on. We need to run on national security. And in 2004, the Democrats played into that strategy as Howard Dean's anti-war campaign pushed and pulled all the other Democratic candidates towards more of an anti-war position. Certainly he did to John Kerry, the eventual nominee.

SIMON: But of course, 2006 - the result wasn't the same.

ELVING: That's right. Not much choice at that point. But the wars had gone sour and the polls had gone south. And the president is now stuck defending a war that is no longer the war on terror so much in people's minds as it is this civil war. And so when the president really laid it on, it didn't play the same way. Here's his campaign pitch last fall in the heat of the Congressional campaigns.

(Soundbite of Congressional campaign speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The Democrat approach comes down to this: the terrorists win, and America loses. And that's what's at stake in this election. The Democrats want to get us out of Iraq, and the Republican goal is to win in Iraq.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

ELVING: Now, that's pretty much the pitch we had heard before, but this time, the audience had changed and the pitch was out of tune. And suddenly, the president finds himself confronting an opposition party Congress.

SIMON: So has the divide over the question of national security changed in character?

ELVING: It has, because now with the sense that the public wants something radically different in Iraq, it's not possible for the president to simply stay the course. And his suggestion that we redouble the bet by increasing our troop strength in Iraq has not played well in the polls at all, to the point where we actually see a number of Republicans joining with the Democrats and saying, we've got to do something about this and the president's buildup is not what we want to see.

And so we hear this appeal coming now from Senator John Warner -until recently, the Senate chairman for Armed Services - calling for people to join him in a resolution that would oppose the troop buildup but maybe not in quite as stark terms as the Democrats would choose.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): To have a vote all on one side and a vote all on the other side, it will not help this very situation at this time. So one of the main goals - and we have achieved it - is bipartisanship, truly.

ELVING: So there you have it. Now, Iraq is a unifying issue between the parties again, but now it seems to be unifying people against the war. And it's people like John Warner who, no longer having the votes on their side, suddenly see the allure of bipartisanship.

SIMON: NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: You can hear all of our reports on Crossing the Divide at npr.org.

And on Monday morning, NPR's Juan Williams interviews President Bush at the White House, the president's first broadcast interview since his State of the Union Address. You'll be able to hear excerpts of the interview through NPR News throughout the day, with full conversation airing on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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