When congressional leaders met with President Bush last week at the White House, the Republicans were upbeat, the Democrats far less buoyant.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a more imposing figure than her Senate colleague, Majority Leader Harry Reid, took the lead in criticizing President Bush's Iraq policy. But to the surprise of Bush and his aides, the Democrats weren't primarily interested in discussing Iraq. They wanted to talk about the budget.
At that point, General David Petraeus had testified on Capitol Hill for one day. And Democrats already exuded an air of defeat. Their assumption had been that opposition to the Iraq war would swell over the August congressional recess, causing wishy-washy Republicans to join them in thwarting Bush's war plans. It hadn't. If anything, opinion polls indicated antiwar fever was easing slightly.
Petraeus capitalized on that. He opened his testimony by knocking down a Democratic canard. He would not be giving a "Bush report" or a "Bush-Petraeus report," as Democrats had alleged. His testimony hadn't been drafted at the White House or the Pentagon. It was his and his alone. In fact, Petraeus didn't hear from Bush last week until he'd finished two days on Capitol Hill and a day of Q&A with the press. And the president called merely to commiserate.
The effect of Petraeus's performance was to slow the clock in Washington, as Peter Wehner, fresh from six years at the Bush White House, pointed out on National Review Online. According to the clock trope, Washington was racing toward full-blown rejection of America's intervention in Iraq, while the Iraqi government was moving far less quickly to meet Washington's—mainly Congress's—demand for political reconciliation and reduced violence. Now, with the momentum for retreat in Iraq diminished, Petraeus has more time and flexibility.
For Democrats, Petraeus Week was a wrenching ordeal. It meant their efforts to change Bush's policy on Iraq fundamentally were dead. Instead, they decided to push various proposals, some symbolic, some designed to make it more difficult for Bush to carry out his military plans in Iraq.
The New York Times ad by MoveOn.org trashing Petraeus as a liar backfired badly. Making matters worse, Democrats were afraid to repudiate MoveOn.org because the party relies so heavily on it for money and campaign workers. Sen. John McCain, among other Republicans, seized the moment. He said if Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton isn't tough enough to denounce MoveOn.org, she's not tough enough to be president.
Few Democrats distinguished themselves in interrogating Petraeus. Clinton invited criticism when she told Petraeus his testimony required her to suspend disbelief—another suggestion he wasn't telling the truth. Sen. Barbara Boxer rambled on about the general's earlier optimism about the war, then gave him no time to answer. Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida was histrionic and demagogic, but managed to be widely quoted in the media.
Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, thought he'd found a wedge to drive between Petraeus and Bush. He hadn't. Levin pointed to Petraeus's response to his question whether the general would continue to favor troop withdrawals "as we get down to the pre-surge level" next summer. Petraeus had answered "yes," twice, Levin said, adding, "I don't think the president is saying that."