Septem­ber may be the Cru­elest Month

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

The po­lit­i­cal and pol­icy plan­ets are be­gin­ning to come into omi­nous align­ment over Iraq and Wash­ing­ton. As elec­toral prospects for Repub­li­cans in 2008 con­tinue to grow darker, the urge of GOP con­gress­men and sen­a­tors to break with the pres­i­dent over the war will only grow stronger.

As I have been say­ing for months — and as Sen. Trent Lott said pub­licly last week — Septem­ber will be the month of reck­on­ing. And that reck­on­ing may wreck the world’s chance to stave off a Mid­dle East dis­as­ter that will prob­a­bly fol­low a pre­ma­ture Amer­i­can exit from Iraq.

(Re­gret­fully, Gen. David Pe­traeus has said that he will know by then whether things are turn­ing around — al­though his own coun­terin­sur­gency writ­ings rec­og­nize that suc­cess­ful coun­terin­sur­gency is mea­sured in years, not months. Septem­ber also fol­lows the Au­gust con­gres­sional break, when con­gress­men will get an ear­ful on Iraq from their vot­ers. Septem­ber is also the month when the new fis­cal year’s mil­i­tary bud­get gets voted on.)

No even mid­dling stu­dent of his­tory can be any­thing less than ap­palled at how of­ten mankind lurches into its episodic catas­tro­phes due to mo­men­tary lapses of com­mon sense shared by vast ma­jori­ties.

In 1914, from Lon­don to Paris to Ber­lin to Vi­enna to St. Petersburg and Moscow, most peo­ple briefly thought that World War I would be over and won by Christ­mas. In ret- rospect, the known close bal­ance of lethal­ity held by the two bel­liger­ent al­liances (and the ad­van­tage the ma­chine gun gave to the de­fense) should have led peo­ple to pre­sume a long and bloody abat­toir of a war.

In the 1930s, the idea that the man­i­fest ex­pan­sive urges of the Ja­panese Em­pire and Hitler’s Ger­many would some­how be self-lim­it­ing should never have be­come the con­sen­sus ex­pec­ta­tion both in Europe and the United States.

But when the peo­ple aban­don com­mon sense for wish­ful think­ing, they are not likely to be led back to safety by their lead­ers. (And it is the peo­ple who pay the price in blood. The lead­ers rarely die with their boots on.) Cyn­i­cal or fool­ish politi­cians will re­flex­ively give the peo­ple what they want. Even most sin­cere and thought­ful politi­cians will rarely find the strength to long re­sist the urge of the pub­lic. Vox Populi, Vox Dei (al­though some­times politi­cians should lis­ten to the ad­vice given to Charle­magne by his ad­vi­sor, Al­cuin: “And those peo­ple should not be lis­tened to who keep say­ing the voice of the peo­ple is the voice of God, since the ri­otous­ness of the crowd is al­ways very close to mad­ness”).

But whether ri­otous or not, the pop­u­lar will is hard to re­sist. That is why last week’s Newsweek polling data is so omi­nous for prospects in Iraq. Putting aside the poll’s mea­sure of Pres­i­dent Bush’s ap­proval (28 per­cent — 4 to 6 points lower than most other polls cur­rently mea­sure), it is the no­tional head-to-head polls be­tween lead­ing Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates that will strike fear into Repub­li­can hearts.

Where, a few months ago, Rudy Gi­u­liani beat (by 5 to 10 per­cent) and Sen. John McCain beat or tied all Demo­cratic com­ers, in last week’s poll Mr. Gi­u­liani loses to Sen. Hil­lary Clin­ton by 3 per­cent, to John Ed­wards by 6 per­cent and to Sen. Barack Obama by 7 per­cent. (This is a net neg­a­tive turn around of 10 to 15 per­cent for Mr. Gi­u­liani). Mr. McCain loses worse, re­spec­tively, by 6 per­cent, 10 per­cent and 13 per­cent.

As nei­ther the Demo­cratic nor Repub­li­can can­di­dates’ cam­paigns (nor their par­ties’ gen­eral ef­forts) have been strik­ingly strong or weak in the last month, what th­ese shock­ing shifts demon­strate is the vir­tual col­lapse of the Repub­li­can brand ap­peal in the face of the con­tin­u­ing bad news from Iraq.

Un­less the num­bers shift back by Septem­ber, Repub­li­can con­gress­men will nat­u­rally as­sume that they are look­ing at the prospect of a 2008 elec­toral drub- bing along the lines of post Water­gate 1974 or Gold­wa­ter 1964 (let us pray they don’t add to that list Hoover 1932).

As­sum­ing con­tin­u­ing bad news and bad polling in Septem­ber, enough Repub­li­cans may well sup­port the Democrats’ in­evitable “out by the spring” mil­i­tary ap­pro­pri­a­tion to al­low for a suc­cess­ful over­ride of the pres­i­dent’s cer­tain veto. Then the pres­i­dent may try to chal­lenge con­gres­sional author­ity in court (per­haps re­ly­ing on the 1861 Food and For­age Act, if Congress doesn’t ex­empt their cut­off from that law, which per­mits an army to stay in the field with­out ap­pro­pri­ated monies).

Per­haps the pres­i­dent will win in court. Per­haps things will be seen to be get­ting much bet­ter in Iraq. Per­haps fewer Repub­li­cans will cross the aisle, and will in­stead stick with their com­mit­ment to our na­tional se­cu­rity re­quire­ments. Per­haps the Democrats will so grossly demon­strate their un­fit­ness for na­tional lead­er­ship that they lose elec­toral cred­i­bil­ity (al­though their grow­ing elec­toral strength in the face of their al­ready clearly grotesque ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity makes one won­der what more they could do that might, fi­nally, ap­pall the pub­lic). But a bet­ting man wouldn’t count on it.

This year, Septem­ber looks to be the cru­elest month.

Tony Blank­ley is edi­to­rial page ed­i­tor of The Wash­ing­ton Times. He can be reached via e-mail at tblank­ley@wash­ing­ton­

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