Lebanese protesters carry placards against Syria in Beirut
Mohamed Azakir  /  Reuters
Hundreds of protesters waving Lebanese flags returned to central Beirut on Tuesday to demand Syria quit Lebanon as the United States and France offered to help the country hold free elections.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/2/2005 12:37:45 PM ET 2005-03-02T17:37:45

Karl Rove always says that George W. Bush likes to make “game-changing moves.” Well, it looks like he’s failing to make one on Social Security, but succeeding in doing so – at least for now – in the Middle East. It just goes to show: if the AARP governed Istanbul, the Ottoman Empire would still be intact. It turned out to be easier for the president to inspire voters in Baghdad than Republicans facing re-election in 2006.

Republican congressional leaders have more or less declared Social Security “reform” dead for the year. What happened? My quick list: post-reelection hubris in the White House, which led the president and Rove to assume (wrongly) that the public was waiting, like the Israelites in the desert, to be inspired; a killer preemptive strike by AARP (with ads that started before inauguration); the administration’s admission that private savings accounts had little to do with keeping the system solvent; and the simple arithmetic which showed that relatively minor tweaking would put off any real Day of Reckoning until mid-century. The attack on 9/11 was a crisis, a huge one. But the president couldn’t manufacture one on Social Security.

So now Bush has even more reason to focus on some relatively good news from the Middle East. It’s too soon to know whether recent events there represent a real – or false – dawn of peace and democracy in a region that hasn’t known either. The verdict won’t be in for decades. But it won’t take that long to get a sense of whether the assertive Bush Doctrine is affecting our politics. It is – and not to the Democrats’ benefit.

Like backgammon players in a bazaar, Middle East leaders are shuttling pieces around the geopolitical board with cunning dexterity, all in response to Bush’s response to 9/11. Transforming the region wasn’t the stated intent of the American-led invasion of Iraq; it was supposed to be about WMD and Al Qaeda. But it’s difficult to argue that there isn’t a causal connection between the upbeat news and the president’s insistence on what amounted to a military takeover of most of the Arabic-speaking world.

Violence continues in Iraq, but the rest is impressive: The Mubarak government in Egypt pledges to move toward elections. The Lebanese, occupied by Syria for decades, oust their pro-Syrian government in a Levantine version of “The Orange Revolution. The Syrians suddenly hand over Saddam Hussein’s murderous brother-in-law, after months of insisting they didn’t have him. The new Palestinian leadership of Abu Abas rids its ranks of Yassir Arafat’s corrupt cronies. The Saudis hold local elections. The Sunnis in Iraq have second thoughts, looking for seats at the table.

What does this have to do with our politics? If the trend continues, plenty. Read on for our guide.

“Dr. No” Democrats
I made a quick survey of Hill offices and the Democratic National Committee, and heard nothing but silence from leading members of the party about Middle East events. Not a peep, aides said, from Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean or Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid or most of the party’s presidential wannabes, even those who voted to authorize the war in Iraq.

The reasons, a top Senate aide told me, are two-fold. One: a trend of a few weeks or months is inconclusive. More important, he said, the White House would pounce on any Democratic cheerleading now as proof that the Iraq war was justified, despite grave questions about the administration’s original justifications for it. Bush is trying to backdate a blank check, in the view of these Democrats, and they don’t feel like helping him cash it.

But the risk, even this aide concedes, is that the Democrats will miss the chance to express their solidarity with universal – and American – ideals and aspirations. In the last century, it was Democrats who lead us in reaching for those stars: Wilson, FDR, Truman and JFK. “We can’t just be the party of ‘no,’” the aide said.

Divided Democrats
The real stress on Democrats is internal. Diplomatic successes in the Middle East will exacerbate the coming War of the Worlds between – for want of better terms—the party’s pro- and anti-war wings. The hawks will argue that Democrats can’t afford to be on the wrong side of history; the doves, that the war is and should be regarded as the biggest blunder of our time. Moveon.org and like-minded groups dismiss the moderate pro-war Democratic Leadership Council types as irrelevant. But progress in the Middle East will embolden the DLC crowd. They’ll bolt the party if they lose.

No isolationist Republicans
Bush has committed the country, and his party, to the cause of remaking the Middle East. There is probably no turning back for either, at least any time soon. The Republican Party used to have a strong isolationist wing. For all intents and purposes, it has ceased to exist. As of today, it’s hard to imagine a GOP presidential candidate in 2008 calling for an abandonment of the neocons’ neo-Wilsonian agenda. In other words, a bunch of former Democrats have worked a revolution from within the other party.

Jewish voters
To Jewish Republicans, the president’s strong stance in defense of Israel and the Sharon government have a lot to do with recent diplomatic and political progress in the region. “Bush is the gold standard on Israel,” one of the most important of them told me during the American campaign season. Positive news means even more outreach. Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman points to the fine print of the 2004 network exit polls. It shows Jewish support for Bush increasing by more than 25 percent – the largest growth in any ethnic bloc – from the 2000 level.

Foreign policy president
Not that it could have been otherwise in the aftermath of 9/11, but the signs of progress abroad – and the embarrassing non-starter called Social Security reform – means that history will judge Bush on his foreign policy. Domestic affairs from here on are mostly a holding action. Which gives Democrats an opening here at home on domestic policy. All they have to do is find something to say.

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