Going into a Senate debate on Iraq this week, the Republicans appeared intent on portraying the Democrats in two negative ways – first, as divided (read: weak) on how to proceed in the war, and second, as quitters wanting to "cut and run."
Whether the debate, and one held last week in the House, will affect public opinion on the war remains to be seen. But as a piece of political strategy, analysts saw Republicans taking a weak hand – a war that has become chronically unpopular – and making the most of it.
The difficulty for the Democrats is that they "exposed their weaknesses and showed none of their strengths," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. "They played into the hands of [Bush adviser] Karl Rove, who is planning to run an election based on Democrats' divisions and weaknesses."
The Senate handily defeated two Democratic resolutions on the Iraq war Thursday. One, offered by Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, called for US withdrawal by July 2007. Another nonbinding resolution, by Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, called for US troop redeployment to begin by the end of this year.
Mr. Wittmann called the votes "largely meaningless" and soon to be forgotten. "The only thing that matters is whether there is progress on the ground in Iraq," he says.
Indeed, even as war supporters had been feeling better lately after the assassination of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the completion of Iraq's unity government – capped by President Bush's triumphal visit to Iraq last week – the negative headlines have also continued apace. Four US marines were killed in Iraq's Anbar Province on Tuesday, and seven US marines and a Navy man have been charged in connection with the death of an Iraqi man.
But the war for hearts and minds back in the US, heading into the crucial fall congressional elections, remains fierce. And even as the mood among political activists has fluctuated, depending on news events and how each party has played the war, public opinion has remained fairly even.
For the past couple of years, the Pew Research Center has found that roughly half the American public thinks the US made the right decision in using military force against Iraq. In its latest survey, taken June 14-19, that figure was 49 percent, with 44 percent calling it the wrong decision.
On the specific issue of a timetable for withdrawal, Gallup has posed several scenarios and found little shift in opinion between November 2005 and this month: Now, 17 percent support "withdraw immediately," compared with 19 percent last November. Thirty-two percent now support "withdraw in 12 months' time" compared with 33 percent last November. The most popular position – "withdraw, take as many years as needed" – got 42 percent of the public now, compared with 38 percent last November. The option "send more troops" got 6 percent Thursday, down one point from November.
The stability in US opinion could point to difficulties for the Republicans, if their goal is to take a strategy that worked in 2002 and 2004 – playing the patriotism and national security card – and use it again. "Given the other hot-button issues on the table besides the Iraq war, including immigration and gas prices, it will be difficult for the Republicans to make as much of it as they did in '02 or '04," says Rhodes Cook, editor of a nonpartisan political newsletter.
But if voters are concerned that the Democratic Party has been unable to come together with a unified stance on Iraq, Thursday's Senate votes did not help. In fact, the vote on the Kerry amendment showed Democrats more divided than they were in 2002, when the Senate passed by a vote of 77 to 23 a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. At that time, one Republican – Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island – and 21 Democrats voted against the resolution. Thursday, the Kerry amendment won only 12 Democratic votes and one independent, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont.
Senator Feingold, Kerry's cosponsor, still saw value in going ahead with a vote that was headed for defeat. "I would prefer we be unified. The worse case is to be silent," said Feingold on the eve of the vote.
The Levin amendment – more general than Kerry's, urging the president to withdraw US troops but without a deadline – was defeated 39 to 60. Senator Levin preferred to focus on the measure of unity he did achieve, rather than on those fellow Democrats who voted "no."
"Senate Democrats coalesced strongly this morning around a policy of changing course in a balanced, common-sense way, by ending our open-ended commitment to keeping American forces in Iraq for an indefinite period of time," he said after the vote.
"Eighty percent of us voted that way. On the other hand, what you got from Republicans was a rubber-stamp approach, voting in lock step [with the White House.] That is something the American people don't want. It's a rubber-stamp Congress and a rubber-stamp Republican- controlled Senate," he added.
"These amendments would call upon the United States to cut and run from Iraq just when the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people need us the most," said Senate majority leader Bill Frist during the Senate debate on Wednesday. "It is important for all of us to fully understand the dangerous implications of a premature withdrawal from Iraq."