Here’s a question as we plunge into the final 80 days of the campaign: what are the “anti-war Democrats” who are running for Congress telling voters about how they’d go about withdrawing American troops from Iraq?
But here’s a more pertinent question: does it even matter what Democratic candidates tell voters about their plans for withdrawal?
Could the Democrats gain control of Congress this Nov. 7 by simply being the generic “anti-Iraq war” party and not getting too specific about what that means?
The lack of a specific exit date from most Democratic candidates should be no surprise.
In most of the landmark elections which took place in non-presidential election years — the Democratic triumphs in 1958 and 1986, for instance — the winning party did not offer a bullet-point list of promises or a “Contract with America.”
In the last 50 years, in congressional elections where one party gained a lot of seats, the winning side simply signified a change from the status quo. That was enough to win.
“Voters are not going to vote on the basis of Democrats’ plans to deal with Iraq because the Democrats aren’t going to be dealing with Iraq for at least two more years,” said Gary Jacobson, an expert on congressional elections who teaches political science at the University of California at San Diego. “Bush is going to be president and it will be his decision as to how fast we get out of Iraq, regardless of who wins the Congress in 2006.”
So, Jacobson explained, “The Democrats’ position of not being very specific makes sense.”
Even those Democrats calling for an Iraq exit add cautions and qualifications.
"A date-certain timetable is not realistic," said Democratic House candidate Dianne Farrell Tuesday in Connecticut. She is running against Rep. Chris Shays, R- Conn., in one of the nation's tightest races. Most Americans, she said, want the U.S. troops to "leave with some sense of stability so things don't worsen."
Exiting — but not abandoning the Iraqis?
Even in the most dramatic anti-war victory so far in 2006, Ned Lamont’s defeat of Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic primary, Lamont emphasized he’d keep U.S. troops right next door in Kuwait ready for action in case they were needed to deter Iran and Iraq’s other neighbors from intervening in its internal politics.
“We’re not abandoning the people of Iraq,” Lamont assured a crowd in Wilton, Conn. six days before he won. “We are going to be there for humanitarian assistance” and reconstruction, he said.
The most explicit proposal to end the U.S. deployment to Iraq has the backing of only 17 out of the 201 House Democrats. It does not seem a coincidence that all 17 hold utterly secure seats, therefore are free to say what they wish.
That House measure, the “End the War in Iraq Act of 2005,” (H.R. 4232) was proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern, D- Mass. and would simply cut off funding for the Iraq deployment, except for money needed for "the safe and orderly withdrawal" of U.S. soldiers.
“I wish more in my party felt as I do,” McGovern said Tuesday.
So why haven’t more Democrats signed on to McGovern’s bill? Perhaps because most voters don’t want a fixed deadline for all the troops to be out.
“Even among people who think that going into Iraq was a big mistake, they don’t necessarily want to withdraw immediately, because it may be that you compound the damage by withdrawing now after having ‘broken the pottery,’ to use Colin Powell’s analogy” said Jacobson.
Evidence of this: California’s June 6 primary election. Democrat Rep. Jane Harman, who voted for the Iraq war resolution and for continued funding of the war, faced a “withdraw quickly” challenger, Marcy Winograd, who despite being under-funded and almost unknown prior to the start of the race, managed to get 37 percent of the vote.
The party of national security
“Democrats are, unfortunately, still allowing Republicans to define what it means to be secure and strong as a nation,” Winograd said Tuesday. “Rather than saying, ‘Look, your policies of pre-emptive war, occupation, and disengagement from diplomacy in the Middle East have destabilized the world… and bred terrorism,’ they play to militarism and nationalism.”
Will the Democrats lack of commitment to a specific exit date lead to anti-war voters staying home on Election Day?
“I hope not,” replied Winograd. “I hope voters remember who took us to war and the lies used to justify sending our young men into harm's way. I would urge Democratic candidates to speak the truth about the Bush administration's reckless foreign policy and to call for bringing the troops home within six months.”
Will Democrats energize their base?
She said, “Democrats need to take a stand if they want to energize the party's base to get out the vote.”
But it seems the tighter the race, the less likely it is that the Democratic candidate will take a clear-cut exit position as Winograd would like.
For instance in Minnesota, where Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton is retiring and Republicans have a chance to pick up a Senate seat, Democratic candidate Amy Klobuchar told MSNBC.com on Memorial Day, “We should bring a significant number of the troops home this year and hopefully get the rest out.”
She did not define “significant” nor did she explain why she included the adverb “hopefully.”
The official Democratic position, if there is one, came July 30 in a letter sent by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, and key committee members to President Bush.
“We believe that a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq should begin before the end of 2006,” they said, but they did not specify how rapidly the redeployment should proceed or the date by which the last U.S. soldier would be out.
Pelosi and the polls
Why did it take Democratic leaders so long to get to this cautious position?
One answer came from Pelosi herself in comments she made in June, 2005. She indicated that she was looking at public opinion polls and hoping the poll data would force Bush’s hand.
Asked whether the House would some day get to a point where it would cut off funding for military operations in Iraq, Pelosi replied, “The public will get there first,” she said. “Their approval of this war is down to 37 percent in today’s poll; in March, it was 47 percent.”
Pelosi called that polling data “a drastic change. The more people who die, the less worth I think the American people will deem it.”
She added, “I think the president is going to bring them home. Thirty-seven percent approval in this country for our troops fighting a war? The president is going to bring them home.”
That hasn’t happened yet, despite Pelosi's prediction.
Even as they chide Bush for not offering a specific plan, Democratic candidates argue it’s not their job to present their own.
Exit plan is the president's job
Matt McKenna, a spokesman for Democratic Senate candidate Jon Tester in Montana said, “his call is for the president to come up with a plan for an exit strategy.”
And what’s Tester’s plan? “It is incumbent on the president and the Pentagon to make a plan,” McKenna replied. Tester “believes that is the president’s job and the secretary of defense’s job.”
There are a few candidates trying to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire on Iraq, but apart from Lamont, who had the luxury of pouring $4 million of his own money into his campaign, none has yet had success.
A Green Party candidate, Byron De Lear, will be on the ballot against twelve-term incumbent Rep. Howard Berman, D- Calif., who voted for the Iraq war resolution.
In May, Berman’s campaign committee chipped in $2,000 to Lieberman’s re-election campaign.
“Both parties are responsible for the U.S.'s disastrous policies in Iraq and in the Middle East,” De Lear said Tuesday. “We especially seek the defeat of Democrats who, like Sen. Lieberman, have supported the Bush agenda. My opponent, Rep. Howard Berman is the Joe Lieberman of the House.”
No matter how droll his sound-bite, it’s hard to imagine the anemically funded De Lear being able to “do a Lamont” on Berman.