Last week’s emotional congressional debates over Iraq demonstrated the rise of antiwar sentiment among Democrats -- and the challenge the party faces in converting that impulse into a unified alternative to President Bush.
Twin confrontations over Iraq, in the House and the Senate -- highlighted by a ferocious House debate that followed a call by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) to immediately begin removing American troops -- showed that the center of gravity among Democrats is rapidly moving toward proposals to accelerate the withdrawal of American troops from the war.
“The last week has changed everything,” said Tom Matzzie, Washington director of MoveOn.org, a liberal group opposing the war. “The whole debate just jumped ahead six months.”
But while the week’s events demonstrated rising Democratic hostility to the war, they also underscored the party’s continuing divisions over what alternative to offer -- and whether to present a specific alternative at all.
Though some insiders believe a majority of House Democrats might ultimately endorse Murtha’s proposal to begin an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, only 13 so far have co-sponsored the resolution embodying it. When House Republicans forced a vote Friday on a resolution urging immediate withdrawal, only three Democrats voted yes after the bitter floor debate.
According to one Democratic source, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has dropped plans to seek a vote in early December on adopting a Democratic Conference position in support of Murtha’s plan. Murtha has said his proposal could lead to a complete withdrawal of American troops in about six months and the establishment of a “quick-reaction force in the region.”
Fearful that the proposal would generate too much opposition among moderate Democrats, Pelosi now plans for the conference only to discuss and debate it, the source said.
The plan Senate Democrats offered last week during that chamber’s debate over the war did not seek to change policy nearly as sharply as Murtha does. Their proposal, rejected on a near party-line vote, asked Bush to set estimated timetables for withdrawing American troops as benchmarks of progress in Iraq are reached.
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that based on the conversations that produced Senate Democrats’ proposal, Reid believed hardly any Senate Democrats would sign on to Murtha’s approach today.
Yet supporters and opponents of the war agree that the cry of opposition from Murtha -- a leading military hawk during his three decades in Congress -- is likely to mark a milestone in the war debate.
“Clearly it was a bombshell and it does shift the debate quite dramatically,” said Ivo H. Daalder, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution who was a National Security Council aide under President Clinton.
Many Democratic political strategists and foreign policy analysts have long believed the party can benefit more from criticizing Bush’s handling of the war than from specifying an alternative.
Although Democrats may be split on Murtha’s specific proposal, his call for a clear break from Bush’s policy is likely to strengthen those who want the party to offer concrete alternatives, many observers believe.
Many Republicans also see last week as a turning point. Bush allies believe that Murtha’s declaration -- following Senate Democrats’ call for estimated timetables -- will identify Democrats with a policy of “cut and run.”
“I don’t think the country has any doubt there are two positions: One is to stay and fight and the other is to leave,” said one Republican strategist familiar with White House thinking.
As public opinion has soured on the war, support for withdrawing troops has grown, according to recent surveys. Nineteen percent of respondents to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released last week supported an immediate withdrawal, and 33% said that all American troops should be pulled out within a year -- meaning that a majority wants all troops home by the end of 2006.
Among independents, 56% want all troops home within a year, among Democrats 67%, the poll found.
Yet a range of GOP strategists remain confident that their party will benefit as more Democrats push to end America’s involvement in the war. “As long as the Bush administration was in the position of having to debate events in Iraq, it hurt us,” said the GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking. “When we are in the position of having to debate the Democratic Party on this, it helps us. That’s what happened in the 2004 election.”
Clifford D. May, president of the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said: “Democrats can certainly reinforce their brand identification as the party that cannot be trusted in the midst of a national security crisis. That is a real danger for them.”
Largely accepting that logic, almost all centrist Democrats and much of the party’s foreign policy establishment believe that a specific timeline or deadline for removing American troops would undermine stability in Iraq and hurt the party politically. During last week’s debate, Democratic foreign policy leaders like Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) repeatedly insisted that the party’s proposal did not establish a timeline for removing American troops.
Even those Democrats urging more rapid withdrawal are split on a wide range of specific ideas.
Until Murtha unveiled his proposal Thursday, Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), a possible 2008 presidential contender, had adopted the most aggressive position among elected officials: Feingold has urged Bush to withdraw all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2006, although he has softened his demand somewhat by describing that as a “target date.”
Several Democratic challengers seeking party nominations in 2006 Senate races have also called for complete withdrawal by the end of next year. They include Patty Wetterling in Minnesota, Matt Brown in Rhode Island and Kweisi Mfume in Maryland.
In the House, war opponents have rallied behind a resolution from Reps. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) and Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii). That plan -- which has about 60 co-sponsors, almost all of them Democrats -- would require Bush to formulate a plan by the end of this year for removing American troops from Iraq and to begin that withdrawal no later than Oct. 1, 2006.
Last month, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the party’s 2004 presidential nominee who is considering another run in 2008, offered a competing plan.
Kerry proposed a phased withdrawal “linked to specific, responsible benchmarks” of progress with Iraq. As a first step, he said, the U.S. should withdraw 20,000 troops if December’s Iraqi election goes well; this approach, he said, could allow the U.S. “to withdraw the bulk of American combat forces by the end of next year.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, has proposed the inverse approach. Levin says the U.S. should pressure the contending Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish forces in the Iraqi government to resolve their differences by threatening to accelerate the withdrawal of American troops if they don’t.
Murtha’s plan leapt so far over all of these proposals in pushing to end America’s involvement in Iraq that it might be compared to the Bob Beamon long jump in the 1968 Olympics that dwarfed all previous records.
It’s not clear how many other Democrats will reach so far in the weeks ahead. But in both parties there seems little doubt that Murtha has pointed the direction his party is heading.