The Note: Frozen in Place


We live in an age of political combat (and we're not complaining -- it keeps us in business), but there's something remarkably tentative about the political world these days.

We have a field of Democrats who can't quite bring themselves to truly attack the frontrunners (at least not on national television). The Republicans candidates are stopping just (and we mean just) short of criticizing President Bush. Congressional Iraq policy is paralyzed pending a September report (and testimony on Sept. 11?) that will surprise precisely no one (least of all senators Carl Levin and John Warner).

One leading Republican can't even decide when and how to get into a wide-open race for the presidency (though he may have to tell us where he's getting his money, if a new lawsuit succeeds). One leading Democrat won't even admit to liking an Internet sensation that (literally) sings his praises (OK, it's weird for the kids, we get it). As Labor Day approaches, even the primary schedule remains in limbo (thanks, Michigan, for keeping us on our toes).

August was supposed to be the month that crystallized Democratic opposition to the Iraq war, in time for a fall bipartisan push by Congress. Yet nowhere is the political tentativeness more on display than on the war -- with members of Congress sharing impressions that something is working. "Staking out positions that could complicate efforts to achieve party unity in September, a few Democratic lawmakers have returned expressing support for a continued troop presence," writes Jonathan Weisman of The Washington Post.

The broad argument Democrats are making: The security situation is improving, but it's too late for the Iraqi government to take advantage of it. "The Democrats' reframing of the war debate helps them avoid criticism for naysaying U.S. military achievements while still advocating a speedy pullout from what they say is a civil war the Iraqi government cannot quell," writes the Washington Times' S.A. Miller.

Two leading senators -- Levin, D-Mich., and Warner, R-Va., are out with a new report with nuggets that play off of that (rather muddy) message. "The 'surge' is having 'measurable results' " that should make compromises possible, they write, per ABC's Z. Byron Wolf. But they're calling for new Iraqi leadership because "we are not optimistic about the prospects for those compromises." Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is going the furthest, in calling for a new prime minister if Nouri al-Maliki can't force quick compromises.

Cue the Republican talking point: Democrats want to pull out of Iraq when they acknowledge that we've finally got the right strategy. This has the makings of a national-security trap (not that Democrats have ever walked into one before). And there were mixed (if not contradictory) messages everywhere when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. John McCain took their turns yesterday before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City.

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