Dem candidates confront the unthinkable: Progress in Iraq

The Times piece on Tuesday served official notice to the intelligentsia that the Narrative was changing, however temporarily. Today’s story reports on the resulting fine-tuning of the anti-war message: Sure there’s been progress, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that reconciliation swing.

Ever the pragmatist, Hillary was positioning herself for this fully three months ago.

As violence declines in Baghdad, the leading Democratic presidential candidates are undertaking a new and challenging balancing act on Iraq: acknowledging that success, trying to shift the focus to the lack of political progress there, and highlighting more domestic concerns like health care and the economy.

Advisers to Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama say that the candidates have watched security conditions improve after the troop escalation in Iraq and concluded that it would be folly not to acknowledge those gains. At the same time, they are arguing that American casualties are still too high, that a quick withdrawal is the only way to end the war and that the so-called surge in additional troops has not paid off in political progress in Iraq…

Lately, as the killing in Baghdad and other areas has declined, the Democratic candidates have been dwelling less on the results of the troop escalation than on the lack of new government accords in Iraq — a tonal shift from last summer and fall when American military commanders were preparing to testify before Congress asking for more time to allow the surge to show results.

This is a delicate matter. By saying the effects of the troop escalation have not led to a healthier political environment, the candidates are tacitly acknowledging that the additional troops have, in fact, made a difference on the ground — a viewpoint many Democratic voters might not embrace.

Were hawks who were in denial about the spiraling reprisals after the Samarra shrine bombing ever given the benefit of having their denial described, with exquisite neutrality, as their “viewpoint”? It reminds me of Jim McGreevey’s infamous reference to “my truth.” Anyway, in four months, if things stay quiet and there’s any movement politically, the message will shift to “declare victory and go home.” Another four months of the same and the message will shift again to crediting Petraeus and the troops for overcoming the albatross of Republican leadership to achieve meaningful gains (a message with more than a little truth behind it), which, needless to say, will make for a mighty interesting reversal. In the meantime, though, despair springs eternal.

As an illustration of the Democrats’ momentary discomfort on the war, check out who they recruited to deliver the response to Bush’s radio address today, replete with obligatory phony disclaimer that he’s not speaking on behalf of the Democratic Party even though he was, in simple point of fact, speaking on behalf of the Democratic Party. If only we’d had a man of his foresight and candor in charge in Iraq in, say, 2003.