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House Republican leaders have urged their Members to lay low in the debate about President Barack Obamas Afghanistan war strategy in an effort to keep their message focused on jobs while Democrats fight each other over the war. Several Republican aides said limiting Republican comments on the war has allowed GOPers to make headway talking about kitchen table issues such as jobs, the economy and climate change.
There is a deep divide in the Democrat Caucus on the war in Afghanistan, which has alienated many of the voters who elected the president and now find themselves at odds with his position, one GOP aide said. As the divide amongst Democrats over the importance of defeating terrorists in Afghanistan continues to widen, there is no need for Republicans, whose position is well-known, to get in the middle of their internal fistfight.
Prior to Obamas prime-time address last week, Republican leaders advised their Members to wait and see what the details of the strategy were before passing judgment.
After the speech, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) advised Members during a closed-door meeting of the Republican Conference to keep their powder dry before endorsing the plan until administration officials had testified before Congress.
But even though several officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, testified last week, Boehner still said he was unsure and indicated he would wait to hear Gen. Stanley McChrystals testimony Tuesday before deciding whether to support Obamas proposal.
Republican aides concede on background that most GOP lawmakers will ultimately support the presidents plan despite concerns about the inclusion of a timeline for withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and that leaders would rather focus on areas where they disagree with Democratic policies.
Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) contended that Republicans continue to focus on jobs not because they agree with Obamas Afghan policy, but because the economy remains the No. 1 issue with their constituents.
The frustration is we dont hear [the economic issues] out of the majority here, and back home its what we hear, we feel, we see, McCarthy said. And so its more of a direct reflection of what our agenda is and what we want to be working on and what I think the nation has the greatest desire for us to work on.
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who came out early in support of the presidents decision to deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, said the GOP focus on jobs wasnt necessarily a play call by leadership but was more of a natural development of the debate.
The ultimate, the higher plane of conversation is about jobs its not a cavernous difference between how the administration looks at the world and how House Republicans are looking at the world, but there is just a very stark contrast, Roskam said.
Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, argued that Members have yet to focus on Afghanistan because it has not been a priority for the administration or Congress until recently.
Members focus on their districts, they focus on their committees and then they can focus on major issues that people are pushing them on, McKeon said. Afghanistan, frankly, hasnt been on the front burner.
But as Obamas poll ratings continue to fall and the unemployment rate remains at 10 percent, Republicans have found it politically beneficial to seize on the message that the economic stimulus has failed, and they have little incentive to change the topic now.
Its a matter of reality. The numbers on the economy make the argument for you, said Stuart Roy, a Republican strategist and principal at Prism Public Affairs.
Democrats have argued that the economic policies introduced by the GOP are reruns of old, failed policies.
We welcome discussing jobs because it demonstrates that Republicans have so far failed to offer any ideas to improve the economy after years of mismanagement, Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said in an e-mail Tuesday. Those same Republicans who ignore the facts that the recovery package has created jobs ... would rather score political points instead of admitting their mistakes and working with us on behalf of the American people instead of special interests.
Still, many Republicans believe the jobs issue could help carry them back into good electoral standing with the American people.
Our biggest problem in polling is that we havent defined what we stand for, a second Republican aide said. Finally rallying around one issue and one set of solutions particularly, jobs would be a helpful message.
But Republicans have another incentive for keeping the focus on divisions in the Democratic Party over the Obama plan for Afghanistan.
There is a widespread sense that the troop committal was a good thing and surprised Republicans, said Ron Bonjean, a former aide to Republican leaders in the House and Senate.
But the issue still may be contentious among Republicans. There is going to be a big debate later on over the withdrawal timeline, Bonjean said.
One Republican Member said GOP leadership is privately concerned about the divides within the Conference on the war strategy.
Theres a lot of disagreement around the edges, the Member said. Some Members believe [Obamas] heart isnt in it. Why should we support him if hes not all in and its quite possible that it wouldnt work?