Iraq returned as a central theme in George W. Bush’s State of the Union address this year. With the war on the minds of many members of the public and with the 2006 midterm elections approaching, it seemed natural that the opposition party would forcefully challenge the President’s policy. Instead, the Democrats ducked and covered. Virginia Governor Tim Kaine devoted a mere three sentences to the Iraq War in his official Democratic response to Bush. Representative Rahm Emanuel, a leading party strategist, didn’t even mention Iraq when asked on television what his party would do differently from the Republicans–a hint of how the Democrats have downplayed the issue internally.
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.
For more than a year Iraq has topped the list of voter concerns in poll after poll. Asked what should be the highest priority for America this year, the largest number of respondents in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll chose bringing most of the troops home. Sixty-six percent of the public want the United States to “reduce its number of troops,” with those respondents favoring a timeline for withdrawal by a margin of 2 to 1. Some 72 percent of American troops serving in Iraq think the United States should exit the country in the next year, a recent Zogby poll found. “The elites in Washington are thinking a hell of a lot different than the people right now,” says Joe Trippi, Dean’s former campaign manager. “And someone’s really wrong.”
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.