Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Democrats decide that it's safe to say "troops out"

The Capitol Hill Democrats have decided that it is politically safe to oppose the war in Iraq and insist that our fighting men and women be allowed to come home.

In a significant political move, the party's top congressional leaders yesterday put aside their longstanding disagreements over whether America should start pulling out troops or simply stay the course. In a letter to President Bush, they argued, in a rare display of unanimity, that troop withdrawals should begin by the end of this year: "In the interests of American national security, our troops and our taxpayers, the open-ended commitment in Iraq that you embraced cannot and should not be sustained."

More from the letter: "Despite the latest evidence that your administration lacks a coherent strategy to stabilize Iraq and achieve victory, there has been virtually no diplomatic effort to resolve sectarian differences, no regional effort to establish a broader security framework and no attempt to revive a struggling reconstruction effort. Instead, we learned of your plans to redeploy an additional 5,000 U.S. troops into an urban war zone in Baghdad. Far from implementing a comprehensive 'Strategy for Victory,' as you promised months ago, your administration's strategy appears to be one of trying to avoid defeat."

This stance is designed to offer voters a sharper contrast between the two camps during the runup to the '06 congressional elections, with the Democrats as the "start bringing 'em home" party, and the Republicans as the "stay the course" party. Antiwar liberals in the Democratic base have long been urging that the '06 race be framed in those terms.

What's most striking is the fact that the Democrats no longer seem spooked by the notion that they will be judged by the voters as surrender wimps and punished accordingly.

Even top Democrats who, as recently as last autumn, opposed any talk of troop withdrawals -- notably, Senate leader Harry Reid and House deputy leader Steny Hoyer -- signed on to the pullout letter (which doesn't posit a specific deadline for a total exit). This means that the Democratic leaders have scrutinized all the latest polls, and concluded that, because the public is so fed up with Bush's conduct of the war, there is no political price to be paid for urging a withdrawal. Indeed, the latest CBS-New York Times poll suggests that the public is ahead of the Democrats on this issue; last week, 56 percent said they want the U.S. to establish a pullout timetable. And Gallup, posing a slightly different question, reports that 55 percent favor a pullout either immediately or within the next 12 months. (Some liberals, citing this public mood, contend that the new Democratic stance still doesn't go far enough.)

Anyway, the Republicans quickly blasted the Democratic letter yesterday, although they had to adjust their tactics. All year, Bush's lieutenants have assailed the Democrats as indecisive and divided over the war. But now that the Democrats are more decisive and united, the GOP is focusing on its other longstanding argument, that the opposition is "waving a white flag." So the statement yesterday from GOP chairman Ken Mehlman invoked the "cut and run" theme.

The Bush camp is still banking that "stay the course" has broad public support. But the notoriously skittish Democrats would never adopt a "troops out" stance unless they were convinced that a sea change in public opinion has already occurred.

And, by the way, if that has indeed happened, then Bush-enabling Senator Joe Lieberman is cooked next Tuesday in the Connecticut Democratic primary.