With a single phrase – "this war is lost" – Sen. Harry Reid has become the most visible antiwar spokesman in Washington.
It's odd placement for one of the rare Democrats who voted for both the first Gulf War and the Iraq war – and, until now, was one of the least quotable politicians in the nation's capital.
An unlikely lightning rod, Senator Reid has raised the stakes in the Iraq debate with his recent comment – and rapidly evolving stance on the war.
As Senate majority leader, he will be a key player in working out a compromise with President Bush over Congress's $124 billion emergency war-funding bill, including a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. The Senate passed the bill Thursday by a vote of 51 to 46 with all Democrats present voting unanimously.
Earlier this week, Vice President Cheney accused Reid of "defeatism," marking the sharpest break between the Bush administration and Democrats now controlling the Congress.
"So in less than six months' time, Senator Reid has gone from pledging full funding for the military, then full funding with conditions, and then a cutoff of funding. Three positions in five months on the most important foreign policy question facing the nation and our troops," said Mr. Cheney, who is president of the Senate, in an rare news briefing on Capitol Hill to respond to the Democratic leader.
"I'm not going to get into a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating," Reid shot back at the same bank of microphones, minutes later. He did, however, call the vice president an "attack dog" twice in the same briefing.
For Reid, the switch from war supporter to leading exit hawk has been swift. The tipping point came during an emotional March 28 visit with wounded soldiers and their families at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
It wasn't his first visit. He'd seen soldiers with missing limbs. What struck him this time were the number out of Iraq with severe head injuries, including a women who had served in the Army for 22 years. She told Reid that she once had been "an expert with numbers," but now couldn't remember her phone number.
Reid's home state of Nevada has lost 27 with coalition forces since the war begin in March 2003, he says. But it's not just the numbers that trouble the senator; it's his conviction that history is repeating itself in Iraq, and that if Congress does not stop this war soon, many more will die to no purpose.
"I remember when President Johnson, trying to save his political legacy, initiated the first of many surges into Vietnam in 1965," he said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Monday.
"At this point, the United States had lost a few thousand troops in Vietnam. Following the surges, and by the end of the war, more than 50,000 more were added to that casualty list," he said.
In this speech Reid did not reprise his unscripted claim that the war is "lost." Instead, he talked about what victory in the war on terror might look like. "If we succeed, we can protect our national security, rebuild our battered and betrayed military, and fight a real war on terrorism that drives the terrorists back into the darkest corners, caves, and crevices of human existence. But to win that war, we must choose a new path in Iraq," he said.
But for his critics, the defining Reid moment is still "this war is lost." On the House side, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee and a presidential candidate, called on Reid to resign. His remarks are sure to have "a demoralizing effect on our troops and an effect of encouragement of the adversary," he said.
So far, the Democratic caucus is standing with Reid. "The larger point he was trying to make was that this war cannot be won militarily, but must be won politically and diplomatically. We need to change course. We can't continue down the same path," says Jim Manley, a spokesman for the Democratic leadership.
"The war is the overarching issue of our time, and Senator Reid has been a bold and decisive leader," says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts.
"Are we winning the war?" quipped Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, responding to whether the Democrats supported the majority leader's remarks. "He has a caucus that ranges from those who are for the war to those who oppose it. He's done a very good balancing act."
Reid did most of his work under the radar. He's best known for cutting deals and counted votes – and building the Democratic majority.
As the No. 2 Democratic leader in 2001, Reid took the lead in persuading then-Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont to switch party affiliation from Republican to Independent, including giving his own committee chairmanship to Senator Jeffords. The move gave Democrats control of the Senate – and won Reid gratitude from his caucus colleagues.
His skills as behind-the-scenes leader are in evidence as the Senate closed in on a vote on the supplemental bill. The bill passed the House with a 218-208 majority on Wednesday, and is headed toward an all but certain presidential veto. [Editor's Note: The original version mischaracterized when the vote occurred .]
But the charge that Reid is calibrating war policy with an eye to prospects for building a majority in the 2008 elections also threatens his credibility in that fight. "We're going to pick up Senate seats as a result of this war," said Reid, in comments reported in an April 13 interview.
"Reid is so fixated on expanding the Democratic majority, because he realizes how little he can do with 51," says Don Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Like Vietnam War-era majority leader Mike Mansfield (D) of Montana, Reid must also negotiate with the White House an end to a war he personally opposes. "Harry Reid is following in big footsteps down a similar path. Unfortunately, with one eye on opinion polls and the other on the next election, it's not clear he sees where he's going," Wolfensberger adds.
Aides say that Reid, a former amateur middleweight boxer, is taking the jabs in stride. "He understands he is a target and every move is subject to scrutiny. He understands and accepts that. He's a plainspoken individual who calls them like he sees them," says Mr. Manley. But the charge, repeated by Republicans in Thursday's floor debate, that Reid is conducting war policy with an eye to 2008 elections is one "I categorically reject," he adds. "No one wants to succeed in Iraq more than Senator Reid."