As War Debate Ignites, Democrats Seek a Unified Message

Although some insiders believe a majority of House Democrats ultimately might endorse Murtha's proposal to begin an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, only 13 so far have co-sponsored the resolution embodying it.

John Calvert


As War Debate Ignites, Democrats Seek a Unified Message
By Ronald Brownstein
Times Staff Writer

6:27 PM PST, November 19, 2005

WASHINGTON — Last week's emotional congressional debates over Iraq demonstrated both the rise of anti-war 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 Senate -- highlighted by a ferocious House debate that followed a call by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., to begin removing U.S. troops immediately -- showed 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, D.C., 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 even to present a specific alternative at all.

Although some insiders believe a majority of House Democrats ultimately might 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 on Friday forced a vote Friday on a resolution urging immediate withdrawal, only three Democrats voted yes after a ferociously bitter floor debate.

One Democratic source said that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has dropped plans to seek a vote in early December on adopting a Democratic Conference position in support of Murtha's plan, which Murtha has said could lead to a complete withdrawal of American troops in about six months and the establish 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.

Meanwhile, 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 did. Instead, that proposal, which was 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.

Jim Manley, the press spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that based on the conversations that produced that proposal, he believes hardly any Senate Democrats would sign onto Murtha's approach today.

Yet both supporters and opponents of the war agree that the cry of opposition from Murtha -- a leading 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 Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former 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 specifying its own alternative. While Democrats might split on Murtha's specific proposal, his call for such a clear break from Bush's policy probably will strengthen those who want the party to offer more concrete alternatives, many observers believe.

Many Republicans also see last week as a turning point. Bush allies believe that Murtha's declaration -- following the Democratic call for estimated timetables in the Senate debate -- 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 American troops has grown in recent surveys. While only 19 percent of people surveyed in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll last week supported an immediate withdrawal, another 33 percent 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 percent want all troops home within a year; among Democrats, 67 percent, the poll found.

Yet a broad range of GOP strategists remain confident the 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. "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."

Adds Cliff May, president of the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies: "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 at home. During last week's debate, Democratic foreign policy leaders including Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., repeatedly insisted that the party's proposal did not establish a timeline for removing American troops.

Even Democrats urging more rapid withdrawal are split between a wide range of specific ideas.

Until Murtha unveiled his proposal Thursday, Sen. Russell 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 softened his demand somewhat by describing that as a "target date."

Beyond Feingold, 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 Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii. That plan -- which has drawn 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 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 says the U.S. should withdraw 20,000 troops if December's Iraqi election goes well; this approach, he says, 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 ranking 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 ideas 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 smashed the previous records.

It's not clear how many other Democrats will reach quite so far in the weeks ahead. But in both parties there seems little doubt that Murtha has pointed the direction his party is heading.



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