At a time when the Iraq war is draining President Bush's popularity, you might think that the Democrats would have a consensus plan of their own for ending the bloodshed and winning the peace.
But no such plan exists - because the party's liberal grassroots base and the cautious Washington establishment are too busy warring with each other.
The liberals, emboldened by growing antiwar sentiment in the polls, essentially want a timetable for pulling out the U.S. troops, but the centrists think that such a stance would enable Bush's spin team to once again paint the Democrats as national-security wimps.
Bush is politically vulnerable at the moment, but the fractious Democrats are ill-poised to take advantage. The liberal base is out of sync with the most visible contenders for the 2008 presidential nomination (Sens. Hillary Clinton, Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, and John Kerry), all of whom voted for Bush's war, none of whom have embraced the calls for troop withdrawal.
This tension is being exacerbated by some of the newest players in the party: the Internet bloggers who enable grassroots liberals to network more easily and raise money without an OK from Washington. It's even possible that if the war drags on and top Democrats refuse to move leftward, the "net-roots" liberals might try to finance and champion their own presidential candidate - someone like Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, who on Wednesday called for the removal of all U.S. troops by the end of 2006.
Indeed, "the Bidens, Clintons and Bayhs" were assailed Thursday on Daily Kos, a popular liberal blog: "We need to let them know that if they don't get on the right side of the Iraq debate, then we won't support their presidential ambitions."
Some pro-Democratic commentators are urging a cease-fire, lest the party play into the hands of the GOP. In the words of Kevin Drum, who aired his concerns online the other day, "This is about the last thing we need." Unless warring Democrats "knock it off," he warned, "we can be sure that Karl Rove will do his best to hammer this wedge straight through the heart of the Democratic party, as the 2006 [congressional races] begin to heat up."
But prominent liberal activists such as David Sirota aren't going to knock it off. Sirota looks at the latest Gallup poll and finds that 33 percent of Americans now favor full withdrawal from Iraq - which beats partial withdrawal (23 percent), status quo (28 percent), and sending more troops (13 percent). And he notes that a majority now believes the war has made Americans less safe at home.
"This sentiment gives Democrats an opening," he said recently. "We can now make the case that an exit strategy from Iraq will actually strengthen our national security. We have to stand up for our principles. There is strength in national-security prudence. There is weakness in national-security impulsiveness, as Bush has demonstrated. People will believe us. They have the evidence in front of their eyes every night on the evening news."
Unfortunately, he argued, the top Democrats are boxed by their own past complicity: "They were proponents of this war... . They can't speak out now with any moral authority."
Some net-roots liberals are even demanding that the pro-war Democrats show some contrition. Bob Brigham, who runs Swingstateproject.com, said: "We as a party can't run from this issue any longer. Some people need to admit being wrong about the war. And we all need to show some political courage. That's what voters respect. If you have core convictions, and aggressively demonstrate that, voters will respect you, regardless of whether they agree with you on individual issues."
Brigham and Sirota, among others, cite the results of an Ohio congressional race on Aug. 2. In a die-hard Republican district where Democrats routinely lose by 40 points, Democrat Paul Hackett, an Iraq veteran who contended that Bush has been "incredibly stupid" on the war, lost by only two. Yet the Washington Democrats seemed not to notice; when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee analyzed Hackett's strong showing in a memo, it never cited the war as a factor.
Bill Burton, the campaign committee's spokesman, was asked about this the other day. He said that although the war will be important in the 2006 elections, he didn't foresee "one set of talking points" for everybody, because while "inflammatory language" against the war might work in one district, it might be preferable somewhere else to talk about "waging the best possible fight that we can for our troops and our soldiers and our interests."
A Democratic strategist working with 2006 Senate candidates argued privately that an openly antiwar stance is too risky: "The theme should be, 'We're in Iraq, so we gotta win.' Let's not refight the origins of the war, who was right or wrong. That discussion has run its course. Let's talk about how we can strengthen the troops, accelerate the Iraqi training, and let's keep hitting Bush when he's not being straight with the people."
Ed Kilgore, policy maven at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (which recently accused war critics of "anti-American bias"), urged caution: "At this sensitive moment in Iraq, there's no position unifying Democrats about what to do next. We need to give it a little bit more time. Troop withdrawal doesn't represent the full range of our party. It doesn't make any political sense."
The party establishment is basically concerned that if Democrats move left and push for withdrawal, the party image will take a major hit. In polls dating back 35 years, Democrats have been generally perceived, fairly or not, as the weaker party on national security. The starting point was Vietnam. Even though most Americans turned against that war in 1968, they didn't endorse the antiwar Democratic stance. Instead, they elected a hawk, Richard Nixon, in 1968 and 1972.
As ex-Democratic strategist Paul Begala noted, "the popular memory" of the antiwar movement is not about Democrats being proved right on Vietnam; rather, it's "the indelible image of young Americans burning the American flag." So the concern today, among party centrists, is that if Democrats move left, Bush will tap those memories and paint them as cut-and-run defeatists. (This explains why top Democrats have steered clear of Cindy Sheehan, whose grief over her son has sparked the Crawford, Texas, antiwar protests.)
Party pollster Stan Greenberg, fresh from conducting focus groups, appears to support that argument. He says in a memo, "The Democrats are seen as weak and vacillating on defense, paying lip service." As a result, "a large chunk of white non-college voters, particularly in rural areas, will remain simply unreachable for Democrats at the national level." Those are the voters who rejected Kerry in 2004 and need to be won over in 2008.
The net-roots liberals don't dwell on the polling history; instead, Sirota argued: "We have internalized the most dishonest stereotypes that the Republicans have propagated against us. It's like the kid who is bullied at school and starts to think of himself as a wimp, instead of fighting back. One way to turn things around is to start now."
And that means taking aim at all Democratic arguments that give aid and comfort to Bush. Here's one such argument, voiced on Aug. 13: "Whether it was a mistake or not [to invade], we are where we are, and we ought to try and make this [Bush] strategy succeed."
That was former President Bill Clinton, on CNN. During the '90s, Clinton managed to quell tensions between party liberals and establishment centrists. But with the war raging and the net-roots in revolt, he is no longer positioned to keep the peace. Right now, nobody is.
© 2005 Philadelphia Inquirer