The Nixon Factor

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Memories of Nixon loom large in the minds of Republican political pros as Bush tosses and turns on Iraq. “GOP operatives are encouraging party leaders to echo Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election strategy for restoring his popularity despite the 20,000 American soldiers killed in Vietnam during his first term,” writes Craig Crawford of CQ. “In that campaign, Nixon softened his hard line on the fighting and began talking up negotiations with the enemy.”

Nixon came to the presidency in 1968 promising to get the US out of Vietnam. But the war continued. Protests mounted, and in 1972, in the campaign against George McGovern, Nixon tried to turn the tide by running as a peace candidate. The President halted bombing the north in mid October of that year, and just before the election Kissinger made his famous statement that “peace is at hand.” That was the death knell for the McGovern campaign, although there had been little hope for his election from the very beginning.

During the ensuing peace negotiations after the election, the Nixon government said the North Vietnamese negotiators were duplicitous, using Kissinger’s pre-election announcement to mock the President and weaken the US negotiating position. To bring the North Vietnamese into line, Nixon ordered a resumption of the B-52 bombing of the North, including Haiphong and Hanoi.

Could Bush pull off something similar? In recent days he seems to be suggesting a change of course in Iraq, raising possibility of an exit. At least that what various commentators and politicians read into his odd interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC. Will that defuse the war issue in the campaign? If it does, and the Republicans manage to keep control of Congress, Bush will be in a strong position to increase the levels of fighting in Iraq, and perhaps argue Iraq can be straightened out by attacking Iran and Syria.

To date the winning Republican Iraq strategem entails, on the one hand, arguing vaguely for an end to the war in Iraq, but at the same time making sure never to set a date, all the while attacking the Dems for cut and run tactics that endanger American troops. Last night in New London, Connecticut in their last debate Joe Lieberman was setting out the Republican line, calling for an end the fighting but attacking Ned Lamont’s demand for a more defined exit.

In this debate, Lieberman, who is running well ahead in the polls, openly called Lamont a liar, a charge which brought the Lamont supporters in the audience to issue a torrent of boos and catcalls, enforcing their man to come forward, asking his supporters to mind their manners. All the while, Lieberman stood smirking at his opponent’s embarrassment.

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