WASHINGTON – After weeks of criticism for not having a clear, coherent message on the war in Iraq, Democrats say postwar Iraq reconstruction is fertile ground for debate and a fresh opportunity to regain political points on and off Capitol Hill.
"I would hope that once the war is over — and I don’t think its over yet — I would hope that the Democratic leaders, both those who are seeking the presidency and those on Capitol Hill, will go head to head and demand a role for the United Nations," in rebuilding Iraq, said Donna Brazile, Democratic strategist and former campaign manager to Vice President Al Gore.
"I hope that Democrats speak out about that. We cannot let Republicans dominate the debate," Brazile added.
But Republicans warn that after such a dismal showing in the war debate, Democrats politicizing the postwar landscape may not be so smart either.
"Political opportunism, based on the liberation of the people who have been under a repressive regime — I don’t know if that is a wise political strategy," said Jim Dyke, spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
Will Marshall, president of the Public Policy Institute, the think tank for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said the Democratic Party houses myriad views on war, and hopefully it can get itself together enough to launch an effective debate over postwar Iraq as well as domestic issues like the economy.
"The fundamental point here is the party is alas, divided," he said. "It’s not that the party is too incompetent to put forward a stand [on the war], it’s just that there are too many views."
As one House Democratic leadership aide who did not want to be named said, one factor that plays for Democrats in this war-time cacophony is the lack of a concerted effort to force all members into ideological lock-step on war policy.
"That’s one difference between the Democratic caucus and the Republican conference — there’s no strong-arming here," the aide said. "You have to decide what is best for America and what is best for your district. I don’t think this hurts the party, I think it strengthens it."
The same Democrat added that just because Democrats do not have the "bully pulpit" of the White House and control of both chambers of Congress doesn’t mean they haven’t been aggressively pursuing legislation to help troops abroad and military families back home.
Though Democrats have been widely divergent on the issue of war, Democratic strategist Tom King said the party has not been muddy with its message or altogether silent. Support of the troops was apparent even if support for military intervention was not.
And, he said, stepping back during war has been the appropriate approach.
"Honestly, I don’t think people in the country care to hear politicians screaming right now — I think there is a time and a place for everything," King said.
"I do think there will be definite questions, however, about the peace, rather than the war. Once the war is over there will be a return to the domestic agenda. I don’t think the administration has a game plan," he said.
While the Democratic National Party has said it stands "shoulder to shoulder" with Republicans in supporting the troops, they haven't lost time attacking President Bush’s domestic policies and underscoring the sluggishness of the U.S. economy.
Daily press releases have emerged from the House Democratic leadership criticizing the House GOP's $550 billion tax cut plan, and Democratic lawmakers are confident they have a winner in calling for smaller tax cuts in a time of rising deficits. On Friday, Vice President Dick Cheney was forced to break a 50-50 tie in the Senate for a budget resolution that doesn't allow more than $350 billion in tax cuts.
"We stand at a pivotal moment in this nation's history, and must conduct our budget policy with a clear view to the road ahead of us. We can't be sticking our heads in the sand, which is what this budget does," said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., before the vote. "We cannot act as if we can do it all with no consequences, without making hard choices — that deficits don't matter, that tax cuts are always the right answer."
Dyke said Democrats are high on rhetoric and low on substance when it comes to offering domestic alternatives.
"You have to have positive solutions, you have to address peoples' concerns and problems. You have to do more than throw rocks at the bus, you have to put forward a positive solution — a positive agenda — to be successful," he said.
Aside from reconstruction and economics, Brazile said she hopes Democrats take the lead in helping rebuild some of the diplomatic damage done by the administration's refusal to listen to nations that did not support the coalition.
"We have to rebuild our allies — we can’t just shut the world out," she said. "That’s another important discussion Democrats can shepherd."
The Democratic leadership aide said "behind the scenes" talks are also ongoing about how House Democrats may pursue a postwar Iraq debate, including how big a role the United Nations should play.
"We’re not going to jump the gun," the aide cautioned. "We want to bring our men and women back" first.