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.

Yet with the exception of Pelosi, who endorsed his plan, Murtha was kept at arm’s length by the rest of the Democratic leadership. “Jack Murtha speaks for Jack Murtha,” Emanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which recruits and supports prospective House candidates, said on the day of Murtha’s announcement. “As for Iraq policy, at the right time, we’ll have a position.”

Steny Hoyer, number-two House Democrat and unabashed war supporter, said that “a precipitous withdrawal” could lead to “disaster.” A Washington Post survey of eight prominent foreign policy advisers found that only one, former Carter Administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, proposed a clear plan for how to get out. The resulting headlines–DEMOCRATIC LAWMAKERS SPLINTER ON IRAQ, DEMOCRATS FIND IRAQ ALTERNATIVE IS ELUSIVE, DEMOCRATS FEAR BACKLASH AT POLLS FOR ANTIWAR REMARKS–reflected the disarray. As prominent Democrats shied away from the fight, Bush went on the offensive with a series of Iraq speeches, allowing Republicans to caricature Murtha’s plan as “cut and run.” Pollster Mark Penn and Democratic Leadership Council founder Al From warned that foes of the war “could be playing with political dynamite” and needed to be “extremely careful.” These Democrats seemed transfixed by the ghost of George McGovern, instead of reacting to the mounting unease with Bush’s policies. “Democrats are so obsessed with not looking ‘weak’ on defense that they end up making themselves look weak, period, by the way they respond to Republican attacks on their alleged weakness,” Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne noted in mid-December.

Democrats in Congress subsequently went mute on the war. By mid-February even Pelosi was reassuring nervous party strategists that there would be no specific talk of Iraq when the Democrats unveiled their own version of the GOP’s Contract With America later this year. The bulk of Democratic strategists approved of the no-details-on-Iraq approach.

“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.