WASHINGTON — Gen. David Petraeus may have accomplished the Bush administration's political goal when he appeared before Congress this week: buying more time for U.S. troops in Iraq.
Yet even if Petraeus succeeded in warding off the slim chance that Congress might vote this year to end the war, he just kicked the war into the 2008 election year. And that aggravates the challenges that both major political parties face in finding a way to give the American people what polls show that a majority wants: a way out.
"He was able to convince those watching that there has been some success," said Chris Borick, the director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College. "He's asking for time. I don't know that he sold people on the long- term picture. But he did sell them somewhat on the short-term picture."
After asking 302 people to watch Petraeus' testimony, the college found that those who believe that the military is meeting its goals rose from 26 percent to 40 percent. And initial headlines emphasized his call to roll back President Bush's increase of 30,000 troops by next July.
"It energizes Republicans," independent pollster John Zogby said of Petraeus' presentation. Petraeus gave Republicans cover to support an unpopular war for at least a few more months, he said. "There is someone besides the president making the case, someone who has credentials. It becomes more than just George W. Bush's war."
The challenge for Republicans, Zogby said, is what to do next year.
If they back additional troop withdrawals late next summer and early next fall, he said, they could be seen as the party that's getting troops out, something that the Democrats couldn't deliver even after winning control of Congress last year.
Republicans would have to do at least that much to erase the damage that the war has done to their image, according to a recent analysis by Matthew Dowd, who was Bush's chief strategist in the 2004 campaign but has since broken with the president and left the party.
"In the public's mind, the Iraq war was a mistake, and continuing the status quo is simply continuing on with a mistake," Dowd said in the analysis for the Huffingtonpost.com. "The public is waiting for leaders from both political parties to stand up to the president and say enough is enough. They would like this situation resolved — and soon — and there is no other solution acceptable to them other than bringing the troops home."
That's where Petraeus creates both opportunity and challenge for the Democrats as well.
His plan would leave 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq until next August at least, as many as were there in January, three months after Democrats won control of Congress largely on an end-the-war platform. That could stamp the Republican brand name even more emphatically on sustaining a woefully unpopular war. And that could be enough to persuade war-weary voters to give Democrats victory next year.
But if Dowd is right about voters wanting some party — either party — to get the troops out, then the Democrats have a problem: They must reconcile their followers' urge to set a deadline now for quick withdrawal with their congressional leaders' calculation that they can't enact a deadline over Bush's veto power without first getting some Republicans to sign on.
That conflict is building strains in the Democratic Party. And Petraeus' presentation put more pressure on that fault line.
The presidential campaign of Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., for example, hit rival Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., on Tuesday for not committing to vote for a fixed, enforceable timetable for withdrawal.
Obama called in January for withdrawal to begin by May and set a goal for all combat troops to be out by March 2008, but he hasn't said he'll vote to cut off war funds unless a final withdrawal date is fixed in law, as Dodd does.
"Are the Democrats going to say they want the troops home tomorrow? I don't think so," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. Senate Majority Leader Harry "Reid and (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi have a very difficult decision to make."
By next year, she suggested, the debate could well be over which party is going to get the troops out.
"The Republicans seem to be saying, `We're in favor of building down. We're just going to do it a little more deliberately, a little more judiciously.' By framing the issue that way, they may have moved a little closer to leveling the playing field."