In the crowd that gathered outside the Catonsville, Maryland, public library in August to support antiwar mom Cindy Sheehan’s demand that President Bush listen to her plea for an end to the US occupation of Iraq, the distinguished gentleman in “CEO casual” dress was instantly recognizable. Women holding BRING OUR CHILDREN HOME banners nodded, men with STOP THE WAR signs waved and eventually one person after another edged over to shake the hand of Kweisi Mfume, the former NAACP president who is seeking an open Senate seat from Maryland. They were thanking Mfume for being something that is still all too rare–a prominent Democrat who is willing to stand unapologetically with the movement to bring troops home from a war that has gone horribly awry. Mfume smiled and told his well-wishers, “This is the right place to be for the right reasons.”

Mfume will get no argument from the party faithful on that point. There is a growing sense that any Democrat who wants to be a leader of what is supposed to be America’s opposition party–and of the nation in which it is competing for power–must be front and center in the antiwar movement. Of course, this is not yet the case. As Mfume told the crowd in Catonsville, there are now “two voices in the Democratic Party” when it comes to Iraq. Such Democratic luminaries as senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and minority leader Harry Reid continue to echo Bush Administration spin about how the United States must “stay the course.” But the antiwar voice is growing louder. Loud enough, perhaps, to force the Democratic leadership to offer something more than an echo–or, if need be, to replace that leadership with Democrats who can present a genuine alternative to the neoconservative national security policies that have made America anything but secure.

“Too many of the leading figures in the Democratic Party made a terrible mistake in 2002 and 2004: They allowed the White House to intimidate them into not opposing an unpopular and misguided war,” says Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, a maverick Democrat who has emerged as one of the party’s most thoughtful dissenters. “If we don’t want to make the same mistake in 2006 and 2008, we have to be moving now to break the taboo that says we cannot talk about ending our involvement in Iraq and bringing our troops home.”

Indeed, if the summer of 2005 taught us anything, it is that the intellectually and morally proper course also happens to be the politically practical one. The country is ready for a bolder critique of the President and his war. The Maryland vigil that Mfume joined was just one of 1,600 held in small towns and big cities across America in support of Sheehan–preludes to a September 24 rally in Washington that is expected to draw tens of thousands. Seven state Democratic parties, so far, have called for withdrawing US troops from Iraq. And in the early stages of 2006 Senate races, Democratic primary contenders like Mfume and Rhode Island’s Matt Brown have made antiwar messages central to their candidacies.

The old excuse that Democrats can be politically viable only by supporting the course chosen by a popular President in a time of peril has less validity than ever. What sense does it make to cede the debate to Bush and his Republican allies when, according to recent Gallup polls, 51 percent of Americans say the Bush Administration deliberately misled the public about the reasons for going to war? Or when 54 percent say the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq? Or when 58 percent say that no matter how long US troops remain in Iraq, they will not be able to establish a stable, democratic government there?

“The bottom line,” says campaign strategist Steve Cobble, who helped guide the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign and is closely aligned with the group Progressive Democrats of America, “is that a Democratic Party that tries to fuzz its message on the war loses.”

With the 2006 midterm elections fast approaching and antiwar sentiment continuing to grow, this fall is shaping up as a moment of truth for antiwar Democrats in Washington. There has always been an antiwar wing of the party–flexing at least a measure of muscle in the fall of 2002, when 126 Democrats in the House and twenty-one in the Senate opposed authorizing Bush to use military force against Iraq. For the most part, however, antiwar voices have been drowned out by party leaders who’ve either parroted Bush’s rhetoric or avoided the issue altogether, hoping in vain that the electorate’s focus could be shifted to economic issues at home. But after a summer recess during which the news from Iraq was more nightmarish than ever, Democratic foes of the war are raising the volume, particularly about the once unmentionable idea of withdrawing troops.

The Out of Iraq Caucus, founded in the House earlier this year by California Representative Maxine Waters, now has more than sixty members. Many of those members are also active in a re-energized Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by two of the House’s most vocal antiwar Democrats, California Representatives Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey. In May Woolsey sponsored an amendment to a Defense Authorization measure demanding that the Administration define its goals in Iraq and provide some sort of exit strategy. Woolsey’s amendment received a surprising 128 votes. She has since organized a hearing, set for September 15, on disengaging from Iraq. “Everything about this war has been a ruinous debacle: the way we got into it, the way we’ve conducted it, the refusal of a plan for disengagement, the high price–in dollars and lives–we’ve paid for it,” Woolsey argued in announcing the session. “There is only one solution: Bring the troops home.”

Woolsey’s hearing will be the first in a number of moves this fall to focus the vague Congressional discussion on concrete questions of goals, timelines and–for the Bush Administration–accountability. Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House judiciary committee, will use hearings, procedural moves and bipartisan resolutions to draw attention to the Downing Street memo–notes from a 2002 meeting between US and British intelligence officials in which a top British official observed that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” of invading Iraq. A House resolution demanding that the White House disclose documents relating to issues raised by the memo now has almost seventy co-sponsors, including Iowa Republican Jim Leach.

On the other side of the Capitol, where Democratic senators have been even more cautious than their House colleagues, Feingold broke the biggest taboo in the debate over withdrawing troops in August when he proposed an actual date for ending the US presence in Iraq: December 31, 2006. Such talk remains anathema to prospective 2008 presidential candidates like Clinton, Biden and Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana. Clinton has been particularly aggressive in distancing herself from calls by other Democrats for withdrawal, pushing the Administration-friendly line that, in her words, “we don’t want to send a signal to the insurgents, to the terrorists, that we are going to be out of here at some date certain” –and handing right-wing pundits ammunition for their “even Hillary Clinton says this is dangerous” attacks on antiwar Democrats.

But Clinton is increasingly positioning herself on the wrong side of the debate–not just with grassroots Democrats but with the country as a whole. “Everywhere you look, the signals tell us that it’s the perfect time for Democratic leaders to be saying, Enough is enough,” says former Senator Gary Hart of Colorado. “But I don’t see that happening until the critics of the war develop their message and make it heard within the party.”

The antiwar message is finally taking shape. Feingold’s call for an explicit timeline for bringing home the troops is an essential component. But that call, Hart notes, cannot come in a void; it must be part of a broader vision for keeping Americans safe and secure in a turbulent world. “You start by casting an exit strategy from Iraq as part of a national security agenda,” Hart argues. “But then you must put forward that agenda, and it has to encompass getting homeland security right, modernizing the military, diplomacy, international aid. It’s the big picture.”

As the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina made clear, that agenda must include a domestic policy component. “Democrats can’t be afraid to say, Look, this war is emptying the Treasury of the money that should be paying for education, healthcare, housing and the rebuilding of our cities,” argues former California legislator Tom Hayden, who cut his political teeth in the anti-Vietnam movement of the 1960s and is now an outspoken advocate for making an antiwar message central to the Democratic platform in 2006 and 2008.

Mfume’s Senate race could turn into an important test of how well the emerging antiwar message plays with voters. The front-runner for the Democratic nomination in Maryland is Representative Benjamin Cardin, who voted against the 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to attack Iraq–but voted in May to block Woolsey’s amendment seeking a plan for withdrawal. Cardin, like Clinton and most Democratic leaders, says a timeline would put US troops in danger. Mfume counters that the Iraq fight is “a war without justification and apparently without end,” and argues bluntly that “it’s time to get out.”

No matter what happens in 2006, the debate over Iraq is likely to dominate the fast-starting 2008 Democratic presidential race. The jockeying for the nomination has already begun, with potential Democratic candidates visiting the Iowa and New Hampshire precincts that will play a definitive role in identifying the party’s next nominee–and its direction. Even if an outspoken antiwar candidate does not prevail in those first contests, the early and persistent presence of a genuine foe of the Bush Administration’s approach to national security issues could prod not just the party but all the machinery of modern American politics–the media, the fundraising establishment and Congress itself–to get more serious about the questions of when and how the United States should pull itself out of the quagmire in Iraq.

Hart, who pondered making an antiwar run for the presidency in 2004 but disavows interest in doing so in 2008, says that the failure of party leaders to advance a logical exit strategy has created an opening for an antiwar presidential candidate–“or, at the least, someone who says, I may or may not be running for President but I am definitely running for the leadership of my party on the most critical issue of the day.” Hart argues that “if someone were to step up right now with a plan to get out of Iraq that makes sense, and heads to Iowa and New Hampshire with that message, they would be overwhelmed with support.”

The notion of being “overwhelmed with support” ought to be enough incentive for any politician with presidential aspirations. But there has been no rush to take up the antiwar mantle. Feingold, who will make a foray into New Hampshire in October, is still a long way from deciding whether to run. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark is busy retracing his trail through the early caucus and primary states he visited during his not-quite-ready-for-prime-time 2004 campaign, decrying “the national security mess that we’re in with Iraq and the so-called war on terror,” but he remains as vague as ever on when and how to withdraw. A more focused message on the war, closely combined with his “two Americas” theme of concern for the poor and disenfranchised, could yet mark the 2004 vice presidential nominee, John Edwards, as the clear alternative to probable front-runner Hillary Clinton. But although his wife, Elizabeth, penned a poignant letter endorsing the vigils for Cindy Sheehan, the grinning North Carolinian has yet to stake out a strong position on Iraq. “We’ve got to have someone,” says Hayden, “who is willing to say, ‘Look, I want the Democratic Party to be an antiwar party. I want the Democratic Party to be a serious opposition party, and I am willing to take on the leadership now in order to assure that we have the right message in 2008.'”

The “right message” won’t simply be a purely antiwar one. After eight years of Bush, there must also be a call for national renewal, beginning with restoration of the federal government as a functional force for good. But as the 2002 and 2004 elections demonstrated, domestic policy messages can be all too easily drowned out when the Republicans start banging war drums. Democrats will have to respond by showing how getting US troops out of Iraq fits into a broader agenda that will make Americans more secure, and maybe even well liked, in a turbulent world. Link that message to a realistic discussion of what the price tag of an open-ended “war on terror” does to prospects for addressing domestic problems–not just in New Orleans but everywhere in the country–and Democrats could well produce an antiwar message powerful enough to renew a party that has been on the ropes for the better part of a decade.