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Bush faces uphill battle in selling troop surge

As the White House puts the final touches on President Bush’s Iraq speech, there are fresh signs of just how much the public and members of the president’s own party oppose an escalation. 
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As the White House puts the final touches on President Bush’s Iraq speech, there are fresh signs of just how much the public and members of the president’s own party oppose an escalation. 

On Tuesday, your nation’s capital was greeted by a new poll from USA Today/Gallup. The poll found that only 12 percent of Americans support “sending more troops to Iraq.”  When respondents were given a softer, seemingly more comfortable question about increasing troops “temporarily to stabilize the situation,” support rose to just 36 percent, with 61 percent still opposed.

That is a very bad number for President Bush because it means that even when the poll question is phrased in a way that would seem to be the easiest for anybody to stomach, the idea that an increase in troops would be “temporary” and would stabilize the situation (which is not a given,) six out of 10 Americans still dislike the idea.

Meanwhile, four Republican senators have now publicly criticized the idea of an escalation in Iraq. Minnesota’s Norm Coleman, Maine’s Susan Collins, Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel and Oregon’s Gordon Smith say the sectarian tensions in Iraq cannot be soothed by Americans.  Gordon Smith said it just minutes after listening to President Bush try to make the case at the White House. Smith told reporters, “These are Iraqi questions that Iraqis must settle.  Whether they settle them peacefully or violently, I don’t want American men and women caught in the middle.”

On the Democratic side of the aisle in the Senate, Edward Kennedy, a longtime critic of the Iraq war, gave a passionate speech Tuesday at the National Press Club proposing that Congress vote on the billions of dollars needed for the troop increase. 

“Our bill will say,” Kennedy thundered, “that no additional troops can be sent and no additional troops can be spent on such an escalation, unless and until Congress approves the plan.”

Kennedy spoke passionately about the Vietnam War.  It was during that conflict when the Johnson administration grew obsessed with victory, became divorced from reality and public will, and kept promising that each new escalation would be the last. 

“Echoes of that disaster,” Kennedy said Tuesday, “are all around us. Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam.”

Many Democrats agree with Kennedy’s view.  But the party now in control of Congress is split over whether to take the politically risky step of using its control of the budget to stop the president’s plans.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would only say that there are “several proposals” being floated and that he would prefer something “bipartisan.”  Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer expressed reservations about using the power of the purse strings to rein in the Bush administration, and he said it isn’t clear if President Bush needs to come back to Congress for a troop escalation.

“I think there’s a question,” Hoyer said, “as to whether he has that authority in prosecuting the war as commander in chief.  My own view is he probably does.  But having said that, I agree with Sen. Kennedy that the Congress needs to be involved.”

Being involved, through hearings or oversight, is very different from actually voting.  And the internal Democratic debate over how to react to the Bush administration’s Iraq strategy even extends to the Wednesday night presidential speech.  Some lawmakers believe a Democrat should give a televised response similar to what happens following the State of the Union address because all of the broadcast and cable networks will be focused on the president’s plan Wednesday night and any criticism.

But Democratic leaders have not requested air time to deliver a formal response.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid believe it is the president alone who must articulate and implement a new policy for Iraq.

Against all of this, U.S. military planners have reportedly concluded that a large and lengthy troop buildup in Iraq will require a reversal in Pentagon policy.  As it stands, National Guard and reserve units have been limited to two years of mobilization for the Iraq war.  That means most reserve units that have already served in Iraq are ineligible to return.  But according to the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, the Joint Chiefs of Staff has concluded that a significant buildup would require Guard and reserve units to serve additional year-long tours.

Ordering Guard units to serve again in Iraq could bring the nation’s governors into this already combustible debate, because governors share authority over the Guard.

In any case, administration officials said Tuesday that the first wave of additional troops will move into Iraq by the end of the month. That means that in the struggle between a president set on escalating the war and a Congress trying to stop him, the race is on. 

Today, Kennedy’s legislative proposal for a vote in Congress received a quick boost.  Hours after Kennedy’s speech, Republican Sen. Gordon Smith said he supported the Kennedy proposal. 

Stay tuned.

Watch each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.