Something big is happening this week in Kansas City. In the middle of August, in the middle of America, the political debate over Iraq is apparently shifting, ever so slightly, back to the middle. How far will (can) it swing in President Bush's favor before the presidential election next fall?
In a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday, Barack Obama did two things he is loathe to do: He echoed remarks by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who addressed the group one day earlier, and he disagreed with his base of liberal, anti-war activists. Both Democratic front-runners still want to end the war, but they both admit now that the "surge" is starting to work to reduce violence in Iraq.
"I don't think there's ever been any doubt about that," Obama told the group to tepid applause.
Clinton and, to a lesser extent, Obama, have drawn fire for their remarks from their party's netroots, who tend to respond negatively to any Democratic concessions that a Bush program in Iraq is "working."
"What does Hillary mean by 'working'? How is the surge working? Is it the same goal she had in mind when she voted to allow Bush to go to war in Iraq if he wanted to?" Frank Dwyer wrote on HuffingtonPost. "I have been thinking I would feel compelled to vote for Hillary if the Democrats nominated her," he wrote, but added, "I'm not sure now how meaningful that vote would really be. And I don't think I'm going to be able to do it." Said Todd Beeton on MyDD: "Talk about Bush/Cheney light."
Republicans also are on the offensive for the first time in months, circulating talking points that remind reporters how strongly Democrats opposed the surge when Bush first proposed it. For good measure, a group led by ex-Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer is spending $15 million on a month-long TV, radio and grassroots campaign aimed at increasing public support for the surge and, by extension, the war.
But if nothing else, Obama and Clinton appear to be reading the national polls, which show a recent surge for the troop surge: The percentage of voters who told CBS News that they think the surge is working has jumped 10 points since July 22. That same measure almost doubled in a USA Today/Gallup survey earlier this month, from 17 to 31 percent. The percentage of voters who think the surge is still not working has dropped significantly in both surveys.
Furthermore, while voters still rank Iraq as the most important issue facing the country, a new Gallup poll shows that fewer voters are doing so than at any time since February.
All of which suggests a potential new reality on Iraq: As Congress prepares for Gen. David Petraeus' presentation to Congress next month, it appears as though a change is taking place -- if not on the ground, than at least in terms of the political debate over the war. Democrats, who still enjoy support from an electorate that long ago gave up on Bush's ability to lead on the war, have largely been forced to recalibrate their own message in the face of recent positive signs in Iraq.
Of course, it's not hard to imagine that Bush could step, clumsily, on this rare piece of good news for his administration -- something he may have done Wednesday morning in Kansas City, when he tried to offer fresh comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam.
"Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left," Bush told the veterans group on Wednesday morning. "Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields.'"
As historian Stanley Karnow put it when asked for comment by USA Today, does Bush think the United States should have stayed in Vietnam? And if he does, does he really have the political capital to win that argument?
It's an uphill climb, at best. And that could be the war's storyline for the remainder of Bush's term: Regardless of the merits of his case, Bush faces a nation that has irreversibly abandoned him, and his party, on Iraq.