Friday, March 10, 2006

"The Democrats: Still Ducking"

"On the advice of top party consultants, the Democrats in the run-up to the 2006 midterm vote are either ignoring Iraq and shifting to domestic issues (the strategy in the 2002 midterm elections) or supporting the war while criticizing Bush's handling of it (the strategy in the 2004 presidential election). Three years into the conflict most Democrats can finally offer a cogent critique of how the Bush Administration misled the American people and mismanaged the Iraqi occupation, but they're unwilling or unable to suggest clearly how the United States should extricate itself from that mess.

To be sure, some highly visible leaders of the party, including Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, have publicly advocated an end to the war. "We do need to make it clear to the American people that after this savaging we've taken at the hands of [Karl] Rove, we are going to stand up for the country and that we have a better plan," Dean told The Nation. "We're not going to make a permanent commitment to a failed strategy, which is what Bush has actually done." But even Dean and Pelosi have done little within party channels to push for a change in position among their prowar colleagues. For now, many prominent Democrats continue to follow the advice of the party's risk-averse consultants and foreign policy intelligentsia--a cautious tack that is unlikely to satisfy voters' desire for change on the crucial issue of the day.

Democratic officials' decision to listen to the political elites is proving costly. This past September a Pew Research poll found that while only 30 percent of voters thought Bush had a "clear plan" on Iraq, a mere 18 percent believed that Democrats in Congress promised a "clear alternative." For a moment on November 17, when Representative Jack Murtha boldly called on Bush to bring the troops home, the Democrats seemed to have found such a voice--and with it an opportunity to shift the debate to how to exit Iraq, not whether to stay. Sure, plans to redeploy US troops within a year or two, sponsored by Russ Feingold in the Senate, the Out of Iraq Caucus in the House and the Center for American Progress (CAP), were already on the table. But none brought with it the standing and sense of urgency of Murtha, who previously had been known on Capitol Hill as the dean of the defense hawks.

"The tone, unfortunately for the Democratic majority, has been set by the two Clintons," says Brzezinski, a longstanding hawk and vocal critic of the Iraq War, "who have decided that Senator Clinton's chances would be improved if she can manage to appear as a kind of quasi-Margaret Thatcher, and therefore she's been loath to come out with a decisive, strong, unambiguous criticism of the war, with some straightforward recommendations as to what ought to be done. And I'm afraid that has contaminated the attitude of the other Democratic political leaders."

It may be impossible to assume that discussion of the war can wait until after November, given the recent events on the ground. If most Democratic strategists have continued to counsel caution on Iraq, a few do not--for moral and pragmatic reasons. "I think the Democrats are afraid of the issue, but I don't think they should be," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. Lake had previously fallen into the camp of consultants who advised Democrats to ignore the war and pivot to domestic issues. Now she says that approach is no longer possible, and that Democrats must talk about a plan to bring troops home. "Iraq is the essential factor in the voters' landscape," Lake says, the number-one issue feeding distrust of the President and a desire for change.

And contrary to conventional wisdom, the public is much closer to Murtha than most strategists realize, adds public opinion expert Ruy Teixeira. "There is a big bloc of centrist voters dissatisfied with the President who don't believe in Iraq, detest it and want to get out," Teixeira says. Independent voters in particular favor a timeline for withdrawal by 54 to 36 percent in a January CBS News poll. "There's an awful lot of people in the party who think Jack Murtha was right," Dean says. "They may not be saying so, but we know that they agree."

A growing number of Democratic politicians, like their strategists, are slowly beginning to realize that Democrats cannot focus on national security without highlighting Iraq. Murtha has nearly 100 co-sponsors in the House. Prominent Democrats, including Dean, former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and Senator Dianne Feinstein, have endorsed a moderate version of Murtha's plan, sponsored by CAP, that would redeploy all US troops by the end of 2007.

Dean personally believes that Democrats can, and may, coalesce around the CAP plan. "My argument is that we need to be specific, because we need to show strength and brainpower on defense," Dean says. "I think having a clear plan to redeploy our troops, which would result in a much smaller footprint in Iraq, makes sense." Democrats can win back the House, Dean says, only with a "broad, clearly differentiated strategy" from the Republicans, including on Iraq. Democratic candidates ranging from Montana to Ohio to Rhode Island have bucked the permanent Washington establishment and made ending the war a crucial part of their campaigns.

"Prolonging the war is damaging us in every respect," says Brzezinski. "The costs are quite extensive and if you add the economic costs [$1 trillion] and the costs in blood [roughly 20,000 US casualties], staying the course is not a very attractive solution or definition of victory. And I think Democrats could make that case intelligently and forcefully."

If Democrats once again fall into what Lake calls an "absence of articulation," the midterm voting--despite all the Republican scandals--could bring a replay of other years, proof of a party that has become so afraid of losing it has forgotten what it takes to win."-from Ari Berman, in The Nation.

The headline for this should have been: "MANY Democrats: Still Ducking."

1 comment:

Craig said...

Spineless and despicable that the Democrats are so worried about positioning themselves that they're consciously aiding, abbetting, and knowingly supporting and perpetuating the sickness of the Republicans War in Iraq.

The "Dems" need to demand (en masse) that we exit Iraq immediately.