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Bad Play

Harry Reid overplayed his hand on Iraq

In my poker game, we split the pot between the "best" and "worst" hands--which encourages more people to stay in and to bet more so that, with the right cards and smart playing, there is a nice pile of chips to win. Consequently, every player's dream is to get dealt a two-way hand, one that wins both high and low.

Over the past two years, President Bush and his Republican colleagues have been dealing great hands to their Democratic adversaries. The Iraq war, Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Mark Foley, Randy Cunningham, Harriet Miers, Scooter Libby, Alberto Gonzales, the RNC e-mail accounts. The great hands just keep coming. But card players know that you have good and bad runs. A key measure of a player is how well he or she maximizes profits from the winners and minimizes losses from marginal hands.

The same is true in politics. One person who ought to know this is the senior Senator from Nevada, of all places, Majority Leader Harry Reid. But Reid took the winning Iraq card that the Bush administration dealt to him and proceeded to misplay the hand, telling reporters: "this war is lost."

What, you may ask, is wrong with that? Wasn't Reid simply making an accurate statement? Perhaps, but there are at least three things wrong with Reid's strategy. First and foremost, the Senate Democratic leader turned himself into the messenger of defeat, which of course quickly became the message itself: Republicans have been extraordinarily stupid in recent months, but they still know what to do if opportunity knocks. "When a top Democrat tells reporters he believes the war is lost," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, "he is telling American troops they have failed. And he is telling our enemies they have won. While Mr. Reid may be willing to throw in the towel and declare this a lost cause, I am certain that American troops are not."

Second, Reid's statement put some of his own troops--Democratic senators--at risk. Democratic Senators Mary Landrieu (from Louisiana), Tom Harkin (from Iowa), and Jay Rockefeller (from West Virginia), who are all up for re-election in 2008, each became the target of a National Republican Senatorial Committee television ad. As the phrase "This war is lost" is repeated eleven times, the ad declares, "While our brave men and women fight for out freedom, Mary Landrieu [or Harkin or Rockefeller, in their respective markets] and her liberal leadership make reckless moves for political gain." In the wake of Reid's comment, Landrieu declared: "I do not agree that the war is lost. ... The administration's mismanagement of the situation in Iraq has been a great tragedy. But when American troops are in the field, we must never--ever--accept defeat as an option."

Landrieu's reference to administration mismanagement points to the third problem with Reid's statement. Instead of declaring "this war is lost," the majority leader could have gotten his point across far more effectively by saying, "President Bush lost this war." Such an approach places responsibility where it belongs instead of on the bearer of bad tidings. If Reid is right and the war is lost, he didn't lose it; Bush and his subordinates did.

Pinning responsibility on Bush is not just aimed at antiwar folks who are already in the Democratic camp; there are many on the right who believe the war could have been won if correctly planned and managed, and there are many in the middle (including at least some of the House and Senate Democrats who voted for the war) who thought, at one time, the war was winnable.

Declaring that Bush lost the war would have changed the debate, forcing Reid's critics to defend Bush's conduct of the war--a tough sell. So tough, in fact, that there likely would have been little of the anti-Reid outcry in the conservative blogosphere, Republican congressional leaders would have been far more cautious, and the White House would have been forced to defend Bush instead of attacking Reid. All this suggests, to get back to my poker metaphor, that Reid had a chance for a two-way win--high and low--but, instead, he is battling to keep half the pot.

By Thomas B. Edsall