The Battle over Narrative, Post-Midterms

Since the 9/11 attacks, the White House has controlled the narrative of American politics. It is up for grabs for the first time since.

Let's assume that the Democrats win back the House but not the Senate. Let's also assume that the situation in Iraq continues to worsen or remain poor, at least in terms of American public and political perception.

The realities on the ground in Iraq and in other global hotspots like Iran and North Korea aside, the American political landscape over the next two years is likely to be dominated by a battle for control of the dominant political narrative in preparation for the presidential election in 2008. Even the races within both parties for the 2008 nomination will be battles for narrative control.

This battle will challenge what has been an enduring political status-quo in the GOP's favor. Since the 9/11 attacks, the White House and the Republican Congress that has rubber-stamped its policies have controlled the narrative of American politics. Republican success in both 2002 and 2004 only confirmed that voters in large numbers bought the spin that the dangerous post-9/11 environment required Republican, and specifically Bush's, leadership. Bush came into office as a self-declared "uniter", and he had an opportunity to lead a bipartisan political climate after 9/11, but instead both the War on Terror and the war in Iraq have been used as wedges to establish a clear divide between strong, loyal Republicans and weak, disloyal Democrats.

And the narrative stuck, for a time, until it started to unravel. With Iraq looking more and more like a failure of historic proportions and with the disaster that was Katrina exposing devastating flaws at the top, the Republican narrative collapsed.

Sort of. As expected, it's popping up all over the place as an increasingly desperate Republican Party looks to play the "soft on terrorism" (or "Democrats are traitors") card as a last-ditch effort to terrify voters into their column. The vilification of gays and Latino immigrants is also pervasive, but the more significant enemy of the Republican narrative is the Democratic strawman who would hide under the bed while Muslim terrorists overrun the civilized world.

Democrats, for their part, have been doing well in the polls more because of Bush's failings and failures than an effective rival narrative. In their efforts to nationalize the midterm elections, Democrats have been critical of Bush's handling of the Iraq War, but the Iraq War more or less speaks for itself. It's been a disaster.

Much may change if Democrats win back the House, though that change will likely have limits. Bush will still wield enormous power as commander-in-chief and, less formally, as occupier of the bully pulpit. He would be sure to use his veto power to halt legislation coming out of the House (and a Republican Senate, nastier than ever, would help out) and, as he has throughout his presidency, he would use his signing statements to reformulate legislation according to his own imperial whims.

The Investigative Narrative

But here's where the battle of narratives would begin. A Democratic House would not be a legislative body so much as an investigative body, as discussed by Michael Crowley in his recent essay for The New Republic, "Subpoena Envy" (Available here)Already, would-be Democratic committee chairs like Henry Waxman, John Conyers and John Dingell are looking ahead to investigating the entire Bush presidency-and rightly so. With the all-important subpoena power, a cohesive majority questing after justice, and a base that wants the "crooks" and "liars" to be held accountable, they will seek to make the case that Bush and the Republicans have been incompetent at best, and criminal at worst.

Such investigations may or may not be successful in uncovering negligence or malfeasance, but damage could still be done. And, further investigations would lead into, and then complement, what is likely to be a dynamic primary season for Democrats, with possible contenders like Clinton, Edwards, Biden, Kerry, Bayh, Feingold, Richardson, Clark and Obama running not just against each other but against Bush and a Republican Party that still holds sway in the Senate. (The Democrats will likely come close but still short of the net six seats needed for a majority.) Theirs will be a battle not just for the nomination but for the dominant narrative of the Democratic Party. They are all critics of Bush and the Iraq War, but there are nuances within.

Similarly, possible Republican contenders like McCain, Giuliani, Gingrich, Hagel, Romney, Frist and Brownback will battle for the dominant narrative of their party. That narrative has been controlled by the White House, but, if the Iraq War continues to go badly and Bush does not respond positively to the Iraq Study Group's recommendations, Republican aspirants to the presidency in 2008 may find themselves running not just against each other and the Democrats but against their own man in the Oval Office.

Bush's Narrative

And then there's Bush himself, and questions abound: How will he respond to the Iraq Study Group's recommendations? Will he remain committed to seeing through his war to the bitter end, a democratic Iraq that seems as remote now as ever, or will he look for a face-saving way out, perhaps through back-channel diplomacy and a commitment of some kind to withdraw the bulk of U.S. troops? How would he respond to a Democratic victory in the midterms?