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The Politics Of Iraq

Two New York Times stories today give a nice glimpse into where the Iraq debate stands, politically speaking. The first is a rather positive profile of Oregon Senator Gordon Smith. The second term Republican came out earlier this month and harshly criticized the Bush administration's Iraq policy, saying that it "may even be criminal." James Risen, who wrote the story, waits until the 35th paragraph to mention that Smith is up for reelection in 2008 (in a purplish-blue state, no less), and therefore politics may have had something to do with his change of heart (the rest of the piece charts Smith's supposedly gradual and contemplative "progression" on the subject). Anyway, what's worth noting here, which Risen does, is that Smith's words did not lead to a barage of similar comments from fellow Republicans. This story fits nicely with Scott Shane's smart assessment of the Baker Commission's impact. His conclusion, basically, is that the Iraq group's influence has been minimal. This seems right. Everyone was waiting for Baker and company to give nervous Republicans extra cover in criticizing the administration, but the debate in Washington seems to be moving along at the same pace that it has been all year (Republicans gradually breaking ranks, "respectable" opinion turning more and more against the war, etc.). It was Murtha's turn, not the Baker report, that was the decisive moment in the domestic debate over Iraq. Which just goes to show you that there's something to be said for taking a strong stand, even if it's not initially popular. Murtha's announcement helped the Republicans a bit at the time, and the conventional wisdom was that Democrats were going to be faced with an unenviable choice: support Murtha, or see the party further split. But it's almost impossible to calculate the political benefit to the Dems that followed from Murtha simply putting his position forward. General skepticism about people on the left saying that the Democrats just need to be strong and "change the terms of the debate" notwithstanding, it was Jack Murtha, and not James Baker, who allowed the Gordon Smiths of the world to separate themselves from the president. --Isaac Chotiner