The Democrats fear tomorrow. Not only in the metaphysical sense, but literally. Tomorrow, Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker will report again on the situation in Iraq. And before a session of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus and Crocker will face two of the three competitors for the presidency.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is the ranking Republican on the committee. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) ranks tenth out of thirteen Democrats. It is not only the rankings that will disadvantage Clinton. The befuddlement of Democrats at how to deal with Petraeus, Crocker and the whole issue of the war will be front and center for two days across every front page, on every television news and radio talk show.
The Democrats’ Iraq incoherence has been on display since Friday. Then, their Congressional leadership — sixteen in all, including Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid — sent a letter that pleaded with President Bush to end the war before the end of his term. They insisted on a greater role in creating long-term security arrangements in Iraq and said Bush shouldn’t, “…create facts that bind the hands of the next president.”
In short, the Dems were throwing themselves on the mercy of the president they despise, knowing that they have no means of affecting what he does. They lack the votes to stop the war or even to block what the president may do this year. (You can read the whole tiresome letter here.)
On Sunday, they were criticizing Bush for taking Petraeus’s advice directly. As if it’d be improved after being massaged through the Defense and State Departments’ bureaucracies.
A top White House official told me several weeks ago that the White House wants to make one last major change in Iraq later this year. Whatever it is, that change is most likely to benefit McCain. The Dems fear the political effect of any final Bush initiative on Iraq. So they will use this week’s hearings to try to block the president’s path, whatever it may be.
This will probably be the last big news event Hillary Clinton can use to revive her floundering presidential campaign. In it, she is cornered between John McCain and MoveOn.org. She dares not appear to look too radically liberal while she and McCain are on the same stage, so she has to tilt to the right. But she also cannot risk losing the support of the people who fund and run the radical MoveOn.org group (who have, so far, stood with her despite Obama’s “withdraw regardless” position, which is much more in line with that of MoveOn.org). The MoveOn crowd won’t continue supporting her if she doesn’t lean all the way left and attack Petraeus and Crocker severely.
(Barack Obama – a junior member of the Committee on Foreign Relations – will have center stage to himself in that hearing, scheduled for the same day. He would fare no better than Clinton against the formidable debaters, Petraeus and Crocker. But he won’t have to: Obama can play to the MoveOn and Code Pink crowds without risk. And, because the Foreign Relations Committee hearing occurs after the Armed Services Committee session, Obama will have the benefit of seeing Clinton’s performance and a while to plan his reaction to it.)
As I’ve often written, Hillary Clinton is as spontaneous as a space shuttle launch. She will have prepared her Armed Services Committee opening speech and questions meticulously, seeking to take advantage of each second, each soundbite. But there is no way she can win the debate against Petraeus and Crocker, or against McCain.
John McCain has an enormous advantage. As ranking Republican on Armed Services, he has the ability to highlight his own support for the Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy, which McCain didn’t invent, but of which McCain has been the most vocal supporter. McCain — through many trips to Iraq — knows Petraeus and Crocker better than anyone else who will be in the room. And it will show.
For Clinton, the Democrats’ disadvantage is personal. She’s behind in the race for her party’s nomination and she did poorly against Petraeus and Crocker in September, when they last appeared and she went hard left. At her most caustic, Clinton called Petraeus a liar, saying his report on Iraq required "a willing suspension of disbelief."
Clinton’s arm’s length relationship with the truth — her most recent whopper being her repeated fib about landing in Bosnia under sniper fire — should take that calumny off the table.
Petraeus, a brilliant commander and a very cool customer, handled Clinton calmly in September, leaving her deflated. He and Crocker will do so again. No matter how many hypothetical questions the Dems throw at them, Petraeus and Crocker will deflect the “what ifs” and stick to the facts. The long-winded speeches that are the Senate’s institutional substitute for questions will be borne calmly and answered within the framework of the testimony the two have planned.
Petraeus and Crocker will say that progress is being made in Iraq. Petraeus will say — as he told me in my interview with him early last month — that the progress is both “tenuous” and “reversible.” Neither will claim victory is around the corner, nor will they hypothesize how long we should be in Iraq. But they will say that withdrawing too quickly will destabilize Iraq and benefit al-Queda.
Clinton’s performance will occur after those of the Dems who outrank her on the committee. Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) will spar with the two witnesses in a way that will set Clinton up to make political points. But others — Kennedy, Byrd, and Reed among them — will be histrionic and snide in their little speeches. They will play-act their concerns over readiness and the fight in Afghanistan, which the president has already said will be reinforced as troops leave Iraq. And they will accuse Petraeus of having political ambitions which — they will say — his testimony is aimed to propel.
That will only reveal the fact that their political concerns outweigh their concerns about the conduct of the war. Which will leave Clinton with only two options, neither of them good.
Clinton can try to look presidential, engaging Petraeus and Crocker in details of timetables for withdrawal, effects on overall Army and Marine Corps readiness and the Maliki government’s ineffectiveness. She would appear the wonk, not the commander-in-chief. And she would not satisfy the Code Pink — MoveOn.org radical liberals who dominate the Democratic Party.
Or Clinton could attack the general and the ambassador for supposedly misleading the American people, hiding the truth about the war and reiterating her charge that Petraeus is lying. The Shrillary act might please the Code Pinkos, but it would fail with everyone else, including Pennsylvania.
Tomorrow is Hillary’s Last Stand. She will prove her military expertise is no better than Custer’s was. And he didn’t fib about being under fire.