The Democratic Party's Iraq Dilemma genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

Polling shows that the war in Iraq is the single most important issue to voters as we move towards the November midterm elections. The latest NBC/WSJ poll clearly points out the importance Iraq holds as Democrats attempt to craft a meaningful message that will convince voters to give the Democrats control of the House or the Senate.

Indeed, it's clear that the situation in Iraq will be on voters' minds as they head to the polls in November. Asked which one or two issues will be most important in deciding their vote for Congress, 53 percent of registered voters said Iraq. That was followed by illegal immigration (at 32 percent), abortion (at 21 percent), and tax cuts (at 19 percent).

Given the opportunity presented by the inability of the Bush administration to demonstrate sufficient progress in Iraq in order to begin troop withdrawals, it becomes critical how the Democrats construct and deliver their ideas on Iraq and it may well determine their success or failure to resume a majority position. At the moment, there isn't a consistent Democratic message...despite today's assertion to the contrary by Nancy Pelosi on CNN. Pelosi, in her best effort to date, argued that the Democrats are in agreement that 2006 must be a year of transitional ideas that provide a clear set of measures to begin the exit process from the troubled country. While her statement is an accurate compilation that succeeds in encompassing the varying Democratic positions, it remains to be seen if the voting public perceives the broadly worded statement as a real plan they can embrace. The San Francisco Chronicle discusses the Democratic dilemma here.

(06-14) 04:00 PDT Washington -- In a span of 90 minutes Tuesday, three prominent Democrats offered competing visions of how to proceed in Iraq and displayed how difficult it will be to turn what was once the Republican Party's strongest asset into its electoral downfall.

As President Bush was returning from his surprise visit to Baghdad, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, a leading contender for the Democratic Party's 2008 presidential nomination, told a gathering of nearly 2,000 liberals that the war was a "strategic blunder" but warned it would not be in the nation's interest to "set a date certain'' for withdrawal.

She was followed by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who told the same group the war was a "grotesque mistake" and that troops should be withdrawn "at the earliest practical date."

Moments later, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the party's standard bearer in 2004, said he had made a mistake by voting to authorize the president to use military force in Iraq, and he called for a "hard and fast deadline" for troop withdrawal.

The Chronicle has done an excellent job of capturing the dilemma faced by the Democrats. Can voters discern a Democratic plan out of what will likely be a constant litany of conflicting statements? If they don't, will Democrats have squandered their best opportunity in recent years to win back control of at least one branch of government?

The conflict was evident Tuesday as Clinton, long a favorite of the party's left, spoke before liberals at the "Take Back America" conference in the ballroom of a Washington hotel.

"I have to just say it: I do not think it is a smart strategy either for the president to continue with his open-ended commitment," she said, "nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain. I do not agree that that is in the best interest of our troops or our country."

Many in the crowd cheered. Many booed. Hecklers began yelling, "Bring the troops home." And when Clinton had finished speaking, she was met by a loud chants of, "Bring the troops home, now!"

The Democratic left, identified as the "netroots", have become a vocal and influential factor in the dialogue. They are strongly opposed to the war, highly critical of the President with regards to the justifications he provided for the invasion, and convinced that the troops must be quickly withdrawn. Not only are they applying pressure to direct the Party's position, they have mounted a focused effort to unseat Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Senator seen to symbolize what is wrong with the Democratic Party. Lieberman's defense of the administration and his statements in support of the current war plan are seen as a full-scale sellout.

The problem I envision involves my concern that the netroots may be overestimating the significance of current voter sentiment in opposition to the war. As I interpret the polling, it is clear that voters feel the war was a mistake and that the administration hasn't demonstrated a plan to end American troop involvement that is viable or satisfactory. However, I don't see any convincing evidence that voters are prepared to demand immediate or imminent withdrawal so long as they see some progress. The positive shift evidenced in the NBC/WSJ poll relative to the handling of the war seems to indicate that each incremental improvement in Iraq reduces the propensity of voters to demand withdrawal. Underlying this voter volatility is, in my opinion, a hesitation to cut and run. Each piece of progress provides some reassurance that despite numerous miscalculations, perhaps the administration has made the necessary adjustments to succeed.

If the netroots dictate the Democratic message from this point forward (and that becomes the publics perception), while at the same time there is measurable improvement on the ground in Iraq, I fear the Democratic position may be viewed as having been unnecessarily premature as well as indicative of a propensity to shy away from the difficult tasks required to defeat terrorism and keep the country secure...not to mention that it will be characterized in the worst possible way by Karl Rove...which would likely include more of the same insinuations that Democrats are weak on defense and have been hijacked by an extreme element of anti-war, anti-American ideologues who are out of the mainstream. I personally don't feel reassured by the way I anticipate these positions and the realities on the ground in Iraq to be converging.

I'll offer some added speculation that I feel provides a plausible strategic scenario that is being executed by one of the potential 2008 Democratic presidential candidates. Many Democrats feel Senator Clinton's Iraq position is contrary to the majority Democratic view. My own belief is that her position is more accurately stated as contrary to the most vocal Democratic view...that of the netroots. Nonetheless, I suspect that in conjunction with perhaps the quintessential Democratic political strategist, Bill Clinton, they are positioning themselves to step in after the midterm elections. My theory is that they expect the midterms to be a Democratic disappointment whereby the consensus will quickly become that the netroots pulled the Democratic Party too far left...even further left than in 2004...a move that they and many others will be convinced was a miscalculation of the sentiment of independent voters and moderate Republicans who were positioned to vote against the Republicans but were ultimately unable to vote the perceived Democratic position.

If my suspicions are correct, and the 2006 outcome closely approximates my expectations, Senator Clinton, who has clearly been a dissenting voice within the Party, will be in a position to assume an indisputable leadership role as the Party attempts to regroup and prepare for 2008. In this scenario, the netroots will have been sufficiently repudiated such that their influence heading into 2008 will be minimized, thereby eliminating the major obstacle to adopting the moderate centrist position the Clinton's anticipate is necessary to win the presidency in 2008.

Daniel DiRito | June 14, 2006 | 7:11 PM
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