Jockeying For Position On Iraq

president bush iraq speech
This news analysis was written by CBS News Producer Steve Chaggaris

It's almost as if President Bush's actual address on Iraq Wednesday night was a mere afterthought.

Pundits and politicians have been debating his expected proposals since before the Democrats' official takeover of Congress last week.

Official pre-reactions from members of Congress and those thinking of running for president flooded the airwaves and reporters' in-boxes earlier this week.

And throughout the day on Wednesday, snippets of the president's speech were handed out, culminating in the entire speech being posted on the Drudge Report at 8:22 pm EST - 39 minutes before the White House wanted it out there.

But finally, after all that buildup, Mr. Bush went on with his remarks as scheduled and let all of America know what Washington had been buzzing about for days - that he's changing his "strategy in Iraq," a change that includes the much-maligned commitment of "more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq."

The president acknowledged those Democrats - and Republicans - who have spent the past days maligning him saying, "Honorable people have different views, and they will voice their criticisms. It is fair to hold our views up to scrutiny."

But what Mr. Bush didn't refer to in his 2,900-word speech is what the media have been chewing on the past several days: the political implications of this proposal here at home.

First off, polls showed that the wave that washed the congressional Democrats into power was due in large part to the war in Iraq. In response, Democrats will be holding week after week of hearings on the war.

Democrats also been mulling over legislation that would actually have some teeth - from threats to cut funding for more troops to an idea that Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy proposed Tuesday: forcing a congressional vote any time the president wants to increase the number of troops.

That's easier said than done, however. So in the meantime, the newly emboldened Dems are eager to get Republicans on the record on Iraq, not just to have the upper hand now - but for the next election as well.

For instance, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated he's going to bring a non-binding resolution to the floor next week that says the Senate disagrees with sending more troops to Iraq. If it's non-binding, what's the point?

"If there is a bipartisan resolution saying, 'We don't support this escalation of the war,' then the president's going to have to take note of that," Reid told reporters.

That's one reason. But it will also put the 21 Republican senators who are up for re-election in 2008 on the spot, giving those who vote against it an opening for their opponents next year.

In fact, four of those senators are on the record already saying they're not fans of the troop increase: Sens. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Gordon Smith, R-Ore.; and John Warner, R-Va.

The ripple effect of the president's proposal is also evident in the nascent 2008 presidential race, with the liberal group going as far as running a TV ad in Iowa and New Hampshire next week against yet-to-announce candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

McCain has not been shy about his support for the president's plan, unlike some of his other potential rivals.

Interestingly, the Republicans who are comfortable with their standing among conservatives are the ones bucking the president, while those who feel the need to burnish their conservative credentials are coming out in support of the troop escalation.

For instance, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a darling of the right who will announce his White House candidacy next week, said in a statement, "I do not believe that sending more troops to Iraq is the answer."

On the other hand, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney - both who have something to prove to conservatives - felt the need to publicly announce their support of the president.

Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates and candidates-to-be have been trying to out-sound bite each other with criticism of the Bush plan.

Former Sen. John Edwards has even gone so far to label the president's plan "the McCain Doctrine" - a dig at the presumed Republican front-runner.

Even though Mr. Bush spent most of his 20-minute speech detailing his changes and not directly talking about the domestic political implications of the war and his proposal, he did briefly seem to acknowledge the long-term political effects and attempt to deflect criticism away from potentially vulnerable members of his party.

"The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people - and it is unacceptable to me," Mr. Bush said. "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me."

  • Steve Chaggaris

    Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' senior political editor.