Do Democrats need to be united on Iraq?

Their varied opinions on the war cloud message for fall.

Democrats are known for speaking in many voices, and the past week was no exception: Even as the party released its plan for governance, should it retake control of Congress in November, its lack of unity on voters' top concern – the Iraq war – took center stage.

As expected, the House Republicans' resolution favoring staying the course in Iraq without a timetable for withdrawal passed easily last week, including 42 votes from Democrats. And when Democratic congressional leaders held a press conference Friday to discuss their "New Direction for America" platform, they faced as many questions on Iraq – not mentioned in the plan – as on the issues that were discussed, including healthcare, energy, and the minimum wage.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California noted that the party had already discussed Iraq in its "Real Security" agenda, released in March, but then confirmed what politics-watchers already know: "We don't even have a party position on the war. We don't ask members to do one thing or another."

The question is, will that matter when voters select a new Congress this fall? Will it be enough for Democrats simply to be the party out of power – and therefore not responsible for an increasingly unpopular war – or will they suffer politically for their inability to craft a unified plan for Iraq?

Independent pollster John Zogby says the Democrats do have to come together on Iraq to be effective this fall. "The war is the elephant in the living room," he says. "The Democrats need to have a firm position."

Control of the House and Senate will be decided race by race, of course, but the ingredients are in place for a nationalized election – the type of midterm in which a wave of voter discontent with Congress and President Bush could sweep out normally safe incumbents. The party's activist, liberal wing wants a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, while Democratic centrists – such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York – resist the idea. Her rejection of a timetable drew scattered boos when she spoke at the liberal Take Back America conference here in Washington last week.

Some political analysts argue that the lack of Democratic unity on Iraq won't hurt the party come November.

"The Democrats ... don't need a position; all you need to be is someone who didn't do this," i.e., support the invasion of Iraq, says John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Professor Mueller cites history as evidence: "Eisenhower's plan to get out of Korea was, he was going to go visit it. Nixon's plan to get out of Vietnam was secret.... In those cases, what they did was punt. They didn't come up with any systematic plan, and they almost certainly benefited in both cases."

Those examples point up how much easier it is to present clear policy choices in presidential races, where the nominee becomes the de facto head of the party and sets the agenda. The example of 1994, when an insurgency led by GOP backbencher Newt Gingrich put forth a clear message and stunned the nation by ending the ruling party's control of Congress, may be impossible to repeat – but that does not mean the Democrats cannot retake Congress in their own way, analysts say.

Democrats argue that by holding an intraparty debate on Iraq, they are behaving responsibly and serving the public good. "Democracy is about a debate of ideas," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the centrist organization NDN, speaking on FOX News Sunday. "We have fulfilled our patriotic role here."

Mr. Rosenberg agrees with Senator Clinton that setting a timetable for withdrawal is the wrong way to go on Iraq. John Podesta, head of the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, also speaking on FOX News Sunday, said he prefers a timetable that gets US forces out of Iraq by the end of 2007.

"It would be better if the Democrats were unified around one plan, but I think it's responsible ... that this debate take place," Mr. Podesta said.

But "seriously, unity isn't everything," he continued. "the Republicans are unified in no change of direction, they're unified on ignoring the facts on the ground, they're unified in no accountability.... They've showed no sense of challenging the president as he's made mistakes, and that will be the issue when it comes to November."

Bob Borosage, co-chair of the Campaign for America's Future, which hosted the Take Back America conference, argues that, in a way, the House Republicans' floor debate on the Iraq war last week created the impression that the Democrats do have a party position on Iraq.

"The Republican position was, we're going to stay the course no matter what," he says. "The Democratic position is clearly not that. I think that probably in the end helps Democrats."

Mr. Borosage says the politics of Iraq boil down to a question of character, for challengers and incumbents. "People are looking to make sure you're taking it seriously...."

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