Playing the Veto Hand

The battle lines were drawn early. Congressional Dems believe that their "mandate" from American voters compels withdrawal from Iraq now, not later.  The president has said that he will veto any legislation that tries to force him to withdraw the troops.  Now the war supplemental appropriations measure includes the language Congress has been threatening and the president has promised to veto it. Though the vote to send the bill to the president is still days away, it’s time to set the stage for what may be the last big political fight of George Bush’s presidency. 

There are a couple of ways the president can play his veto hand. First, he can play it quietly, vetoing the message without much fanfare, hoping against hope that the Dems will just come around after they lose the override vote, as they almost certainly will.  Second, he can frame a considerable political drama around it, pulling out all the media stops.  If he does the former, he may still win the battle to sustain his veto but he will have to fight that battle over and over.  If he does the latter, he may not only win the battle but may revive his presidency.

If ever a Congress begged for a veto, this one has in the provisions of the war supplemental appropriations bill. Though the report hasn’t been released in its entirety, CQ reported yesterday that the House-Senate conference has put four major provisions in limiting the president’s options to deal with the Iraq war. Any of the four would have justified a veto: together, they only demonstrate the hard core of the Democratic party. From CQ, here are the lowlights:

1. Requires withdrawal of American troops from Iraq to begin on July 1, 2007 and be completed within six months. If the president certifies the Iraqi government has met the bill’s benchmarks (militia disarmament, enactment of oil revenue sharing law and legislation on elections) the withdrawal can be delayed to begin on October 1, 2007 and completed six months after that;

2. The only troops that can remain behind will be to protect US personnel, to engage in special actions against terrorists, to serve in diplomatic provisions, and to train Iraqi forces;

3. The Iraqi government is required to meet the benchmarks outlined in #1; and

4. Any US military units going to Iraq must be certified "fully mission capable", have been out of Iraq for a year before being sent back in, and extension of tours in Iraq is limited by the law. The provision makes some allowance for the president to waive these limitations.

If all they wanted to do is "cut and run", why’d it take so many words? Because the Dems are milking it for all it’s worth, and the press is working overtime to help them.  But the Dems have overplayed their hand: the president can beat them easily by charging into them at full speed.

President Bush should view the veto fight as a great opportunity, and build a major speech and a series of media events around it.  He should take it around the country, talking to the people who voted him back into office in 2004, and voted against his Iraq policy in 2006.  Those same people didn’t endorse the Dems’ cut and run strategy.  They don’t believe we’ve lost the war, and many of them have sons and daughters, husbands and wives, far from home risking their lives in a war they — the troops — believe can be won.  In short, this can be George Bush’s great "Reagan moment."

If he chooses to make it so, if he reaches out to the American people and makes a national campaign of it, he may restore the momentum his presidency has lost.  And – more importantly — he may be able to re-engage the American people in the war. The one that goes far beyond Iraq, beyond Mr. Bush’s presidency, and on which America’s future depends.  Go for it, Mr. President.