From the Baby Steps Department where Democratic leaders plot policy comes a letter to President Bush signed by the opposition party's Congressional leadership, as well as a number of House and Senate Democrats who have been associated with national security and intelligence issues.
The letter from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and their partisan compatriots identifies the crisis of the moment: "Iraq has exploded in violence. Some 6,000 Iraqis were killed in May and June, and sectarian and insurgent violence continues to claim American and Iraqi lives at an alarming rate. In the face of this onslaught, one can only conclude that the Baghdad security plan you announced five weeks ago is in great jeopardy."
The letter identifies the broader crisis: "U.S. troops and taxpayers continue to pay a high price as your Administration searches for a policy. Over 2,500 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice and over 18,000 others have been wounded. The Iraq war has also strained our military and constrained our ability to deal with other challenges. Readiness levels for the Army are at lows not seen since Vietnam, as virtually no active Army non-deployed combat brigade is prepared to perform its wartime missions."
The letter identifies the source of the crisis: "Far from implementing a comprehensive ‘Strategy for Victory' as you promised months ago, your Administration's strategy appears to be one of trying to avoid defeat."
The only thing that is lacking is a proper response to the crisis.
While the letter declares the belief of its signers "that a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq should begin before the end of 2006," it does not propose anything akin to an exit strategy.
In effect, the letter is an embrace by key House Democrats -- Pelosi; Minority Whip Steny Hoyer; Ike Skelton, the ranking minority member of the House Armed Services Committee; Tom Lantos, the ranking minority member of the House International Relations Committee; Jane Harman, the ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee; and John Murtha, the ranking minority member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee -- of the a proposal by Senators Carl Levin, D-Michigan, and Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, that was voted down by the Republican-controlled Senate in June.
The vague Reed-Levin measure was a soft alternative to a proposal by Senators Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, and John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, to establish a timeline for bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq.
Most Senate Democrats backed Reed-Levin -- although, notably, Senator John Lieberman, who faces a stiff primary challenge next Tuesday from anti-war Democrat Ned Lamont, did not. Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee was the sole Republican backer of the proposal.
Most Senate Democrats refused to back the Feingold-Kerry proposal, [The 13 Democrats who did take a clear anti-war stance were the sponsors and Senators Dan Araka and Dan Inouye of Hawaii, Barbara Boxer of California, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jim Jeffords and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon.]
So where does this new letter leave the Democrats. Not far from where they were in June, before all hell broke loose in Baghdad. House Democratic leaders are a little more united than they were early in the summer -- with former cheerleaders for the war such as Harman and Lantos, both of whom faced California Democratic primary challenges to their Bush-friendly stances, moving in a more clearly skeptical direction regarding the administration's misguided foreign policies.
That's progress. But the Democratic Party has yet to embrace the position taken by the overwhelming majority of Americans. A July Gallup poll found that roughly 2 in 3 Americans want the U.S. to exit Iraq. [Significantly, 31 percent wanted the exodus to begin immediately.]
While the new letter to Bush was intended to suggest that Democrats are united, the fact is that the party leadership has not yet figured out how to talk about Iraq in a meaningful way. If they ever do, it will most likely be because of a push from the party's grassroots. That's why the Lieberman-Lamont contest in Connecticut is such a big deal. The rejection of Lieberman by Democratic primary voters would not merely signal grassroots anger with one war-backing senator, it would signal that Democrats want their party to start making a serious appeal to the great majority of voters who want out of Iraq.
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. Nichols is the author of two books: It's the Media, Stupid and Jews for Buchanan.
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