It’s an election year, so White House political czar Karl Rove and his Congressional errand boys are up to their usual tricks. But this year there are signs that at least some top Democrats won’t be playing Rove’s game.

When House Republican leaders responded to bipartisan calls for an honest debate on the Iraq occupation with a resolution endorsing the Administration’s failed strategies and rejecting a timeline for withdrawal from a war that had that very day cost the 2,500th American life, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi countered with something Rove wasn’t expecting: outspoken opposition.

“Stay the course? I don’t think so, Mr. President. It’s time to face the facts,” Pelosi told the House. “This war is a failed policy of the Bush Administration…. We need a new direction in Iraq.” Echoing the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of Americans, the minority leader thundered, “The war in Iraq has been a mistake–a grotesque mistake.”

Pelosi, who became minority leader in part because she voted in 2002 against authorizing Bush to attack Iraq but who has since taken hits from the Out of Iraq Caucus for adopting a cautious approach, did more than just serve up the right rhetoric. She led a huge majority of Democrats in voting against the resolution. Even members like minority whip Steny Hoyer and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel, who have sided with the White House in the past, voted no. Ultimately, the resolution passed, 256 to 153, a disappointing result but still the biggest Democratic break so far from the Administration’s line on the war.

Pelosi’s strong statement and the willingness of most Democrats to cast what they knew would be seen as an antiwar vote signal an election-year shift in the right direction. House Democrats are starting to talk seriously about the war, calling it the mistake most Americans know it to be and embracing the discussion of withdrawal most Americans know must take place if there is to be any hope of ending the killing in Iraq and restoring some sanity to US foreign policy.

The news is not so good from the Senate, where minority leader Harry Reid has yet to speak with the clarity or force of Pelosi. But despite Reid’s caution there are encouraging signals. John Kerry, having failed to come out against the war as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, is now doing so. Kerry joined two of the Senate’s most consistent critics of the war, Russ Feingold and Barbara Boxer, to offer an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill, setting a July 1, 2007, deadline for redeployment of US troops out of Iraq. Most Democrats were expected to vote instead for a weaker measure calling only for the start of troop redeployment by year’s end. But Kerry’s joining Feingold to back a timeline is significant. It lends legitimacy to the discussion of setting an exit strategy. And the more that high-profile Democrats with presidential ambitions embrace an antiwar position, the more untenable it will be for cautious Democratic senators like New York’s Hillary Clinton to straddle the fence on the most fundamental issue of the 2006 Congressional elections–and, potentially, of the 2008 presidential election.

The Democrats are not yet articulating an antiwar position that will clearly distinguish them as the opposition party polls show Americans want. But at least some party leaders have begun to adopt the necessary stance. And for all the GOP’s spin-machine bluster, nothing frightens Karl Rove and the Republican team more. Americans know it is time to end the US presence in Iraq, and they will reward the party that offers a plan for leaving before another 2,500 Americans–and countless Iraqis–are killed.