Tortured Logic

How Bush’s latest fight with McCain helps Republicans.

For a guy supposedly trying to suck up to the Republican base, John McCain is doing a terrible job. First he outraged conservatives by pushing an immigration bill they considered too lenient on illegal workers, and now he’s made them angry by opposing the president on the treatment of terrorist detainees. Republicans had planned to spend the remaining days until the election painting the Democrats as weak on national security issues. President Bush spent two careful weeks giving speeches to rebuild his approval ratings, unify Republicans, and reframe the November elections around the issue of terrorism instead of Iraq. A Gallup poll that has Republicans cheering suggests the strategy is paying off for Bush and his Congressional allies. McCain is getting in the way of all that, filling the newspapers with stories about internal GOP warfare.

Conservatives once praised President Bush for doing the morally right thing even if it was politically harmful, but apparently that theory doesn’t apply to John McCain or those who have sided with him in this debate. But these conservatives may be more than morally confused. They may be politically misguided. The debate over how to treat the world’s worst terrorists is not necessarily bad for Republicans. The struggle from now until Election Day is between Democrats who want to make the central political debate about Iraq and Republicans who want to make it about the war on terror. The latest Gallup poll explains why: Voters who care most about Iraq want to punish Republicans at the polls. Those who are worried about the war on terror favor Republicans. If that dynamic has a real effect on voter choices in the midterm elections, then every hour that the fight over detainees dominates the news cycle should please Republicans because it keeps the subject of Iraq at bay.

And now is a very bad time for Iraq to be in the news. Gen. John Abizaid has confirmed that there is unlikely to be a reduction in forces in Iraq before spring of 2007. Given the upside-down way predictions have worked in this war—where the insurgents are described as being in their “last throes” just when they’re coming on stronger than ever—that could very well mean there will be a troop increase after the election. The Bush administration reportedly is increasingly nervous about whether the new Maliki government can handle the deteriorating security situation. A diplomat who has spent a lot of time in Iraq told me and a few other reporters last Friday that Iraq is at a “watershed moment” and is “descending into chaos.”

With such awful news out of Iraq, even the messy McCain/Bush fight—which those of us in the press can’t resist—provides a helpful distraction. Instead of having Bill Kristol talk about how many more troops Bush should be sending to Baghdad, the conservative commentator is talking about how wrong McCain is. The debate also allows the president to continue to remind people of the plots that have allegedly been foiled and remind people of the grave and ongoing danger from terrorists. Bush could have tried to do that by continuing to make speeches, but after two weeks of the same, his message was getting old. The public fight changes the story enough to keep global terror as topic A.

It’s possible, of course, that the debate over detainees is eating away at the GOP’s advantage over Democrats on the issue of terrorism, but I don’t think it is. Voters give Bush and the GOP high marks because they think they’re doing whatever it takes to protect them. Voters have not punished Bush on this issue in the past for going too far. Will they start now?

There is some evidence that Democrats recognize this conundrum. They’re not just standing back and watching the Republicans fight with themselves. Instead, they’re struggling to get the conversation back to Iraq. Wednesday, Senate Democratic leaders held a press conference announcing plans to apply some partisan oversight to the Iraq war, holding their own hearings without Republicans.

If the GOP ultimately benefits from this fight, it will be more the result of luck than choreography. Karl Rove’s enemies have lots of fantasies about his skills, but he didn’t plan to have a brawl with Colin Powell and John McCain, the two most popular Republicans on the planet. And yet when the president declared that detainee treatment should be Congress’ focus for the remainder of its session two weeks ago, he surely knew he was in for some kind of a fight.

But if this battle is not a complete disaster for the president, it could yet become one. Each day seems to bring more support for those who oppose his plan to redefine the Geneva Conventions into irrelevance. On Sept. 19, the House judiciary committee handed Bush another setback. A debate might be helpful but actually losing the fight wouldn’t do Bush much good. So, the White House is working hard for a compromise. In the end, Bush will probably cave on amending the Geneva Conventions, just as he did in his original battle with McCain over torture. It will be in McCain’s interest to repair relations with conservatives by heralding Bush’s willingness to compromise. They’ll hug, Bush will declare victory, and we’ll all go back to talking about Iraq again.