THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Republicans feeling a new freedom

For many, Iraq becomes history lesson

By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / November 20, 2008
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MIAMI - Tommy Franks, the retired four-star general and a political debutante, may have violated a new Republican Party taboo almost as quickly as he opened his mouth while seated on a panel at the party's governors conference here last week.

"America made a stand, and it was not without cost, was it?" said Franks, who commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We have paid the cost and we are where we are today."

Franks appeared to be the only one who wanted to take responsibility for either war, even obliquely. The others who gathered in Miami seemed to relish the new freedom they inherited along with their party's devastating losses earlier this month: with President Bush and losing candidate John McCain drifting off the scene, Republicans no longer have to be the party of unpopular and seemingly unending conflicts abroad.

Those are now Democratic responsibilities, one Bush ally noted with some satisfaction, hinting at a corollary to the "Pottery Barn rule" about postwar responsibility: Republicans may have broken Iraq, but President-elect Barack Obama bought it.

"He will now own it, and Republicans will be more free to criticize," said former Ohio Congressman Rob Portman, who held two positions in the Bush administration and is now considering a run for governor in 2010.

Obama ran on a pledge to begin a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq once he took office, and to have them all home within 16 months.

Republicans who dismissed that timetable as unwieldy or irresponsible now eye it as a chance to test Obama.

"He is commander in chief now. If he wanted to bring all the troops home tomorrow he could," said Chip Saltsman, who managed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee's primary campaign.

If, as many military analysts suspect, Obama is unable to do so on his promised schedule - or faces tough spots along the way - his critics could include both the activist left that opposed the war from the outset and a Republican Party looking to impose accountability on a new president.

"He gets a pass during the first few months. You don't own what you didn't create in a world of politics," said South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. "But if the expectations are not met, he has a problem - not only a military one, but a political one, as well."

The wartime steadfastness that Bush and McCain made central to their presidential campaigns seemed to disappear from the Republican vocabulary after the party's defeats in this year's presidential and congressional elections.

A presentation by pollster Frank Luntz to Republican governors about "21 words for the 21st century" focused on the need to convey political integrity, like "accountability" and "efficiency." Luntz noted that when he gave such presentations four years ago, words related to security dominated that lexicon. Now only one, "consequences," was inspired by the cost of inaction.

"The American mood changed, the priorities of Americans changed," Luntz said. "We're not as focused on foreign policy now. We're focused on getting through the day."

For many Republicans, Iraq is now a history lesson, no longer a cause. On a panel hosted by Bush adviser Ed Gillespie, the conservative analyst Byron York, a writer for National Review, included "starting a war by mistake" in a litany of Republican errors - a comment that would have once been treated as intra-party heresy but now drew no rebuke.

"All the things that didn't go right with government, Republicans got blamed," said Saul Anuzis, a Michigan party official running to lead the Republican National Committee, mentioning Iraq along with Hurricane Katrina and the so-called Bridge to Nowhere earmark. "Republicans, generally, we run better when we run against Washington from the outside."

Unlike the party's past two nominees, most of the governors in attendance - several of whom are potential presidential contenders - are not implicated in the war's origins or mismanagement. They are less sensitive to the broad strategic justifications for an American presence in Iraq than to its cost in human terms - on domestic budgets and on military families - arguments that once belonged to Democrats demanding withdrawal.

"This war has touched all these people, because they've lived it as commander in chief of their National Guards," Saltsman said of the governors. "To be honest, they're involved in a way senators and congressmen can't understand."

None of the Republicans in Miami suggested he or she intended the GOP to become an antiwar party, and some acknowledged that divesting from Iraq in political terms would take a while.

Obama, after all, is likely to seek political cover for whatever mess he faces in Iraq by reminding voters that Bush and his allies were responsible.

"He will blame everything on Republicans," said Luntz. "It's going to take a year to shake all that loose and start again."

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