- November 7th, 2006: Democrats win a majority in both the House and the Senate. According to opinion polls in the two months before the elections, Iraq is the clear number one priority, with an average of 31% of the country listing it as their top priority, compared to 19% listing "the economy." The number listing Iraq as their top priority balloons to 39% in open-ended polling on national priorities, and reaches 44% in the month after the election.
- January 2007: Both the 2008 Presidential campaign and congressional fight troop levels in Iraq begin. In general election polling, John McCain leads Hillary Clinton by an average of 2.3% according to nine January polls, and leads Barack Obama by an average of 2.9% according to eight January polls.
- February through early May 2007: Fight over troop levels in Iraq heats up in Congress, focusing on the escalation and the Iraq war supplemental. Public overwhelmingly backs Democrats position, typically to the tune of 60%. or more. At the same time, one of the most public proponents of the escalation and continued war in Iraq, John McCain, sees his poll numbers begin to detonate, dropping from about 25% of national Republicans in January 2007 to 15% in mid-May 2007 (see here and here). Obama leads McCain by an average of 2.4% across 18 polls, and Clinton cuts McCain's lead to 0.5% across 20 polls. Further, Democratic self-identification reaches a 20-year high, and congressional approval hovers in the mid-30's.
- Late May though early August 2007: Following Bush's veto of an Iraq supplemental with a timeline for withdrawal, an alliance of Republicans and Democratic Bush Dogs pass a blank check on Iraq through both branches of Congress. Congressional approval immediately drops below 30%, and never recovers. Despite defeat and dropping approval ratings, Democratic congressional leaders caution against using more aggressive tactics to force a change of direction in Iraq. Concurrently, John McCain's favorable rating drops below 50% for the first time ever, and even reaches net negative in some polls. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton now lead John McCain in every single general election poll, and do so by an average of more than 3%.
- Late August through September 2007: General Petraeus testifies before Congress, argues that the escalation has worked. Like virtually every Democratic leader, Clinton offers stumbling initial support for the Petraeus claim. Less than five Republicans flip their votes on Iraq from May. Since Congress refuses to do so itself, MoveOn.org attempts more aggressive tactics against the Petraeus claim, and ends up getting condemned by the same congressional coalition that passed the blank check. Obama does not vote on the condemnation, but also does not speak out against it except in a press release. McCain's national poll numbers temporarily recover by about 5% according to Real Clear Politics. At a debate in late September, all leading Democratic contenders for the nomination refuse to promise to remove all troops from Iraq by 2013.
- Late 2007: Democrats leaders in Congress decide to shift focus away from Iraq, although it takes three months for the country to finally agree with this shift and start ranking the economy ahead of Iraq on a list of national priorities. Despite low approval ratings, Democrats are still poised to make large congressional gains on Republicans due to a wave of Republican retirements in the House (28 so far), the need to only defend 12 seats in the Senate, persistent Republican recruiting problems, and a seismic shift if the fundraising landscape between Democrats and Republicans. John McCain sees a complete recovery in his poll numbers and, by the end of the year, has taken the national lead for the Republican nomination. He also reasserts small leads on both Obama and Clinton in general election polls.
- Early 2008: Democratic congressional leaders completely give up on trying to change the direction of the war in Iraq. McCain wins the Republican nomination for President because of Iraq, even though according to exit polls the majority of his primary voters indicate they are "angry" or "dissatisfied" with the Bush administration. He leads both Clinton and Obama the majority of general election polls. Although Clinton is still favored, the Democratic nomination is now poised to drag on past Super Tuesday, potentially dividing the party in a campaign when it already starts from behind.
At this point, the most likely--but hardly guaranteed--outcome to the 2008 elections is John McCain winning the Presidency over Hillary Clinton, while Democrats make decent gains of 10-15 seats in the House and 3-5 seats in the Senate. If this comes to pass, the failure to win the Presidency will be squarely placed on several major pillars of the progressive movement. MoveOn.org will be blamed for losing Iraq. Howard Dean will be blamed for the Michigan and Florida situations. Progressive activists in the blogosphere and on the ground will be blamed for pushing the party too far to the left, dividing the party, and denying Hillary Clinton an earlier nomination that could have helped her against McCain. The Village and the more timid, pro-corporate, centrist elements on the Democratic Party will both remain in total command of their respective power centers. McCain and the Democratic Congress probably pass a series of compromise measures on major issues like global warming that give the appearance of tackling the problem, but ultimately fail to make serious inroads to impending catastrophes. The potential for even further damage to our republic and long-term exhaustion within the ten-year old, contemporary manifestation of the progressive movement will be very real.
That, in a nutshell, is the disaster scenario we face on the electoral front in 2008. The central cause of this scenario is timidity on Iraq. John McCain would not be the Republican nominee, and neither Clinton nor Obama would be losing to him, if Iraq had not been taken off the table and if the "escalation is working" narrative had not taken hold. And yet, if this scenario comes to pass, the Democrats who allowed that narrative to take hold will find their relative power increased, while we will find ours relatively decreased. In a very real sense, this has already happened, given the strained relations both MoveOn.org and Howard Dean have with congressional Democrats. Not only has Iraq been taken off the table, but our two strongest voices within the establishment are being taken out of the equation.
Obviously, this can all be prevented by a series of electoral victories in the Democratic presidential primary, in the key congressional primaries of IL-03, MD-04 and IA-03, and, most of all, through general election victory for the eventual Democratic presidential nominee. However, we are now facing uphill battles in all three of those areas, making our chances of pulling all three of them off much more difficult than the task was just a few months ago. The simple truth is that, starting with the explosion of blogosphere traffic during the invasion of Iraq and with the rise of Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2003, over the past five years, the rising and declining fortunes of the contemporary manifestation of the progressive movement have been inextricably tied to winning and losing the Iraq debate nationwide. Right now, because we are losing that debate, we are losing pretty much every other fight, too. Until we start winning that fight again, our fortunes will not reverse. As long as the Iraq war continues, winning that debate must always be our number one priority.