- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 11, 2005

Democrats’ demands for a speedy military pullout from Iraq threaten to raise the soft-on-national-security issue and could hurt the party’s chances in next year’s elections, political analysts say.

Recent Democratic troop withdrawal initiatives in Congress, followed by a direct pullout call from Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean, have not only widened a split over the war among Democrats, they have raised fears among party operatives that the “get out of Iraq now” posture will help the Republicans keep control of Congress next November.

“The Democrats have been trying to erase this soft-on-defense-and-national-security label for years, and this is a potential setback in that effort. It sure handed Republicans some ammunition,” said veteran elections analyst Jennifer Duffy at the Cook Political Report, which tracks House and Senate races.

“I think [troop withdrawal] probably plays well in the Democratic primaries, but it can be very problematic in general elections, especially in red states and swing states,” she said.

The Democrats’ growing dispute over Iraq appears to be dividing them over the No. 1 issue in the country just as they are about to enter a pivotal election cycle, a veteran party leader said Friday.

“You have to be careful that you don’t say things that fail to unify the party. What Dean said, frankly, created more divisions than unified the party over what we ought to do in Iraq,” said Leon Panetta, former Clinton White House chief of staff.

Calls by Democratic congressional leaders for near-term troop withdrawals have drawn criticism from Democrats such as Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who said such a move would be tantamount to surrender before the Iraqi security forces are ready to fully defend their country from the insurgency.

The party’s brewing political divisions over the war reached a boiling point last week when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, embraced calls for a quick pullout and Mr. Dean not only declared that the war was unwinnable, but also set forth a withdrawal plan that would redeploy most U.S. forces fighting in Iraq to other countries.

In the House, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he feared the party’s troop-pullout posture would hurt Democratic candidates in key races. A growing number of Democrats, including Mr. Hoyer, distanced themselves from Mrs. Pelosi’s remarks and some openly and bluntly criticized Mr. Dean.

“My words to Howard Dean are simple — shut up,” Rep. Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota Democrat, said last week.

In the Senate, Democrats publicly and privately said they disagreed with Mr. Dean’s withdrawal proposal, including red-state Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bill Nelson of Florida, both of whom are up for re-election next year.

Even Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, one of President Bush’s harshest war critics, flatly rejected Mr. Dean’s declaration that the “idea that we’re going to win this war is an idea that, unfortunately, it’s just plain wrong.”

“I think that there’s a chance of success,” Mr. Levin said, “providing the Iraqis put their political house in order.”

Mr. Panetta said he, too, rejected Mr. Dean’s belief that the United States could not achieve its goals in Iraq.

“I really do believe that if we had a clear strategy we can ultimately provide sufficient stability in Iraq. I think that part is doable,” he said.

“Dean’s position is not universally shared within the party and all these folks are going to have to deal with this stuff,” Ms. Duffy said.

The discord grew so great last week that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, urged his fellow Democrats to “limit their comments” on Iraq to areas where there was general agreement in the party.

Meanwhile, preliminary polling numbers showed last week that public support for Mr. Bush’s stance on the war had inched up a few notches, pollster John Zogby said.

“His numbers are a little better,” Mr. Zogby said.

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