Democrats Debate Stand on Iraq War Before Midterms

The American military's continued presence in Iraq will be a prime talking point for Democrats as they try to regain the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate in November. But beyond daily attacks on the Bush administration's handling of the war, the Democrats have yet to form a unified party position on the issue.

That lack of consensus highlights the debate within the party over the need to embrace a serious plan for finishing the job and bringing the troops home.

"I think you cannot run a modern campaign in a post-9/11 era and deliberately not take a position on the most pressing national security issue of our time — I think the public will react to that," said Democratic strategist David Sirota. "That's what leadership is … it's forging these kinds of coalitions that take steps forward and doesn’t necessarily allow the caucus or the Democratic Party to just wallow in this issueless muck."

Sirota and others have been talking up a plan issued by former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis, who worked in the Clinton State Department.

"Strategic Redeployment: a Progressive Plan for Iraq and the Struggle Against Violent Extremists," advocates a drawdown of 80,000 U.S troops from Iraq by the end of 2006.

The plan brings home all National Guard and Reservists, and redeploys the rest of the 80,000 troops to Afghanistan, Kuwait, the Persian Gulf and near terrorist hotbeds in Africa and Asia. By the end of 2007, the remaining 60,000 troops in Iraq would be reduced to a smaller contingent of counterterrorist units and advisers to the Iraqi government.

Supporters of this plan say it is not as immediate as the withdrawal measures proposed by Rep. Jack Murtha, R-Pa., but neither does it avoid setting a timeline for getting the troops out. It also gives Democrats the opportunity to counter the administration's "stay the course" rhetoric and respond to public opinion polls suggesting that the majority of Americans want forces to begin coming home.

"This war is a security failure," said Jon Soltz, an Iraq veteran and director of the new Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Political Action Committee. But, he added, "the Democrats need a plan for Iraq. Do they need to be specific about what it is? Yes."

The Korb report has reportedly been circulated by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., and has been publicly endorsed by Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

"It's a sensible plan. It's a thoughtful plan. I think Democrats can coalesce around it," Dean said last month during a speech in Boston. His office, however, said Dean's remarks were his personal opinion, and not an official party endorsement.

Therein lies the problem.

Korb's plan is competing with others that tend to avoid any timetable for withdrawal. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has a plan for a drawdown of troops based on successful benchmarks. Sen. Joseph Biden, Del., has a similar plan. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has focused on highlighting President Bush's failures of conduct in the war rather than embracing any plans for getting out of Iraq.

House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who supports Murtha's plan for immediate withdrawal, nonetheless has said the House Democratic Caucus will not officially endorse a plan, rather it will let individual members decide their positions.

DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney said Democrats are unified behind the resolution passed by the Senate in November that called for 2006 to be a year "of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty."

"We agree that we need to change course," she said. "Our role is to hold this administration accountable for their failures."

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., a Vietnam veteran who served on the Sept. 11 commission and is now an adviser to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America PAC, told that "it's difficult to come up with an alternative plan when you're not the party in power," but suggested that any exit strategy should be carefully measured.

"We have an ally in an emerging democracy …under no circumstances should — when [the Iraqis] write their history — they say the U.S. abandoned them," he continued.

"You're damned if you stay, you're damned if you don't stay," Kerrey said of the U.S. position in Iraq today.

On Sunday, Murtha told CBS' "Face the Nation" that the only option for the nation is to redeploy as soon as possible.

"We're caught in a civil war. We've lost almost 20,000 people in this war, if you count the casualties, and the people who have been killed in the three years we've been involved," Murtha said. "The only people who want us in Iraq is Iran and Al Qaeda."

Some observers say the internal debate underscores a rift between the more establishment centrists, particularly Democratic Leadership Council Democrats who draw on the "third way" politics of President Clinton as their platform for success, and party activists, the more left-leaning grassroots who helped get Dean into his current position and who accuse the centrists of avoiding a direct political fight with Republicans.

Sirota said these DLC "elites" are "the guys who had run the party into the ground in election after election after election," and he blamed them for supporting the administration's initial push for the war in Iraq. "I think most would believe that a position much like the Korb position, that in broad terms supports an exit strategy and a timetable, is supported by the majority of Democratic lawmakers," he said.

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the DLC think tank, said he doesn't believe the Korb plan has any real popular support, and that any exit strategy suggesting Democrats want an expedient way out will backfire.

"It doesn't follow that one should simply declare the whole thing an irredeemable mess and propose withdrawing troops before any successful outcome," he said, noting that a broader strategy against "terrorist jihadists" should be pursued by the party before the elections. Democrats, he added, need to close the "national security gap" with Republicans.

But not everyone believes rallying around a plan is necessary right now. One Democratic campaign consultant who did not want to be identified said the push to establish some unified Iraq strategy is "insane."

The midterm elections in November, he said, are "about individual races. There is a national mood, against Republicans and for change, and in individual races that mood of change means different things to different people."

Murtha said some Democrats have expressed concerns that developing a solid plan will result in it being usurped by Republicans.

"A lot of Democrats say to me, you know, you're helping the Republicans because if they start to get out, if they get a schedule and a timetable to get out, which I think they need to do, it will help the Republicans. So, they may not say it privately, but they understand how serious this is," he said.

"When you have the public against it, when you have the troops against what we're doing, when you have the people in Iraq against it, when you have the periphery against what we're doing, you have to understand that it's going to have a dramatic impact on the outcome of the election. I think right now I'd predict there's going to be a big turnover in Congress because people are so dissatisfied with a lot of things," he continued.

Others say the lack of a plan is going to hurt Democrats.

"It was a problem in 2004 – we didn’t have a coherent message then and we don't have a coherent message now," said Audrey Blondin, an official with the Connecticut Democratic Party. She said her state's two senators – Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman – support Bush's plan to stay in Iraq and reject any timetables for withdrawal.

"Sooner or later we have to get a coherent message or we're going to have the same thing in 2006," she added. "It's inexcusable."