The Democrats: Still Ducking
"You can't hope the Democrats will ever have a unified message, other than a unified critique of how Bush mishandled the war," says Steve Elmendorf, a former chief of staff to Representative Dick Gephardt and senior adviser to the Kerry campaign who's helping plan the Democratic agenda for '06. "The point of an agenda is to be unified, and the party clearly won't be." Nor is it realistic to expect they should be, says longtime political adviser Paul Begala: "I don't think a Congressional candidate ought to presume to be able to solve unsolvable problems." As an example Begala praises Bob Casey Jr., a conservative Democrat from Pennsylvania who's criticized his opponent, Senator Rick Santorum, for his allegiance to President Bush but has also indicated that he would have voted for the Iraq War and has ruled out any plan for troop withdrawals. Karl Struble, a media consultant to Kaine and former Senator Tom Daschle who'll produce campaign spots for Democratic Senate candidates in Arizona, Nebraska, Washington and West Virginia, says that Iraq "can't or shouldn't be the primary thing Democrats talk about" in '06 campaigns. "When the tree's gonna fall, the best thing to do is stay out of the way," he says.
The Democrats' prospective nominees for the presidency, who often dictate the public image of the party even during midterm elections, have largely heeded Struble's advice. "I do not believe that we should allow this to be an open-ended commitment without limits or end," Senator Hillary Clinton, the most recognizable Democrat, wrote in a letter to her constituents in late November. "Nor do I believe that we can or should pull out of Iraq immediately." If the Iraqi elections were successful, Clinton said, troops could begin coming home this year, though she didn't specify when or how. When asked if the outcome of the December elections met Clinton's criteria, her spokesperson Philippe Reines answered, "The jury's still out." Clinton continues to speak about Iraq only when she has to, in the most measured tones. Contenders such as Joe Biden, Evan Bayh and Wesley Clark have charted a similarly fuzzy approach.
"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."
With eight months to go until the 2006 elections, there's certainly time for Democrats to push for a course correction on the war. Fiddling while Iraq burns will likely only reinforce Republican stereotypes of Democrats as calculating, gutless and unable to develop a strong and sensible foreign policy that will protect Americans in a post-9/11 world. 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.