Score one for crass political calculation [Online Exclusive]

As both Democrats and Republicans cast about last week for an Iraq policy that was both acceptable to their respective bases and capable of passage, political courage, if not competence, was in short supply for both parties.

Impressively, however, Virginia’s senior Senator John Warner managed to stand out in both areas by pursuing a morally indefensible course of action to political perfection.

Warner ought to be called to account by the citizens of Virginia for torpedoing a badly needed bill to aid our troops that he admits he supports in principle in favor of crass political calculation.

John Warner originally supported a bill, sponsored by the other Virginia senator, James Webb, that would even the amount of time troops spend training with the amount of time they spend on tours in Iraq and Afganistan. But last week, he changed his mind, which killed Senate momentum to pass the measure.

On September 19, Virginia’s other senator, James Webb, reintroduced his “Dwell Time Amendment,” a measure that would require U.S. troops to have a 1:1 deployment-to-dwell ratio, or in other words, the same amount of time at home that they are required to serve in Iraq. According to Webb, the current ratio is about 5:4, while the historical ratio of deployment-to-home is 1:2.

Warner, who was a Marine, a former secretary of the Navy and a longtime chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was one of a handful of Republican senators to support the bill when Webb first introduced it in July. It fell only three votes short of the 60 it needed to break a Republican filibuster at that time.

When Webb reintroduced his measure for a second time last week, it looked like it might get enough additional votes from several GOP senators to pass.

That is, until Warner changed his vote at the last minute, providing enough political cover for his potentially wayward colleagues to withhold their support.

On the Senate floor, Warner said although he agreed “with the principles…laid down in [the] amendment,” he regretted that he had “been convinced by those in the professional uniform that they cannot do it,” leaving the high-minded impression that military impracticality took reluctant precedence over principle.

But Warner’s chief of staff, Carter Cornick, accurately, if inadvertently, explained that Warner’s vote reversal was based primarily on the political desire to avoid a presidential veto.

Warner, he said, had on “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, been working with the Pentagon trying to forge a compromise, such that the Administration would not veto [the bill].” (Emphasis mine.)

By Wednesday, Cornick said, Warner had become convinced there was “no path to achieve a compromise,” and “it was clear to him that without that possibility,” he should oppose the bill.

Cornick, however, could not explain why.

It is not difficult, however, to discern the potentially devastating political impracticality of Webb’s bill from a GOP perspective.

First, even if you allow that people of good will can disagree about U.S. policy and strategy in Iraq, it is beyond dispute that the burden of fighting the war is falling disproportionately on a tiny minority of the country, and that burden is stretching the troops and their families to the breaking point.

Second, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made clear that, given the state of the U.S. military and the desire to maintain an all-volunteer military, the current onerous deployment schedule is necessary if the U.S. is to maintain its current troop levels in Iraq.

And finally, more and more, the sole remaining basis for the President’s policy is the—there is no nice word for this—lie that opposing the President’s Iraq policy is equivalent to opposing the troops.

But Webb’s legislation is, if nothing else, troop friendly, and it would put the Bush Administration between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Indeed, this is why many Democrats support it, and it is also why, according to Webb, the White House “turned up the political heat” on Warner.

I think highly of Senator Warner. I actually don’t believe his actions last week were designed to protect either Bush or what Warner has strongly hinted he believes is a failed and unsustainable Iraq policy.

Rather, Warner’s political calculation was more likely aimed at helping several of his fellow GOP senators, particularly those in increasingly anti-war states facing elections in 2008 such as Susan Collins (Maine), Norm Coleman (Minnesota) and Elizabeth Dole (North Carolina).

Talking head Chris Matthews explained the politics. “[Congressman] Jack Murtha (D-Pennsylvania) knows a lot of members on the other side of the aisle,” he said on his TV show, “Hardball,” last week. “He says…that a lot of Republicans are acting very hawkish now.  They’re not going to go with any anti-war provision of any kind until after their primaries are over with next spring.  Then they are going to start acting.” 

The respected Warner’s ostensibly high-minded changed vote was the safety net they needed to vote against Webb’s amendment, placating the base without alienating everyone else.

So far, 3,800 Americans have died and 28,000 have been wounded in Iraq, along with what might possibly be as many as hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis. Those numbers grow every day, as do the numbers of devastated family members, wives, husbands, parents and children, grappling with these losses.

But at least there are a few GOP incumbents sleeping easier tonight thanks to the political acumen of our senior senator.

Alan Zimmerman is a Charlottesville-based writer.

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