- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 6, 2006

Democrats are uniting behind what appears to be a deadline-free withdrawal plan in Iraq, ostensibly rejecting the politically unpopular quick pullout sought by the party’s antiwar Left.

Racked by divisions over the war, and overwhelming rejection of the 6-to-12-month pullout deadlines sought by Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, respectively, party leaders came up with a fallback position last week that won support from a broad cross-section of the party.

That the latest withdrawal plan offered by 12 top Democrats, including House leader Nancy Pelosi, California, and Senate leader Harry Reid of Nevada, was signed both by Mr. Murtha and House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who opposes any pullout deadline, signaled a turn toward political pragmatism on an issue that has deeply divided their party.

Even the most radical antiwar bloggers, like Daily Kos, rallied behind it, as did centrist Democratic groups like Third Way. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has opposed any timetable on withdrawal, backed the party leadership plan, too.

“This is good. And it comes at a good time as Bush actually increases the number of troops to try to quell the violence in Baghdad,” Kos told its armies of antiwar activist readers last week.

Democratic strategists from far left to center said the latest proposal, laid out in a letter to President Bush last Monday, would offer voters a choice between the administration’s “stay the course” policy on the war and “a new strategy” aimed at pressuring the Iraqi government to do more of the fighting on their own.

The “new direction” they proposed called for the beginning of a “phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq… before the end of 2006.” Pointedly avoiding any mention of a date for the removing forces from Iraq beyond that, it calls for limiting the future mission of U.S. troops to counterterrorism, training and logistical support for the Iraqi army and safeguarding U.S. personnel.

It was a reluctant recognition by Democratic leaders that a precipitous pullout — deserting an Iraqi government that is in its infancy — is unpopular with most Americans. A Gallup Poll reported July 28 “Only 19 percent of Americans favor an immediate pullout.” But 38 percent of Americans support staying “as many years to do this as are needed” and another 7 percent would send more troops, the poll said.

Centrist Democratic think tanks like the Third Way and the Democratic Leadership Council feared leftist demands for a complete pullout, no matter the consequences, would further weaken the party’s national security credentials with voters.

Last week, they rejoiced at a plan with a more mainstream-sounding position on the war, which would appeal to a far wider share of the electorate. “This is the choice that most House and Senate races will come down to — the Republicans and Bush’s position to stay the course and the Democratic candidate who says I’m not satisfied: We need a new strategy that begins to redeploy but rejects a timetable for it,” Third Way president John Cowan told me: “That is how the Democrats are going to frame this debate for the voters and that will be the choice before them in this election.”

Not every Democrat liked the plan. But embattled Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, fighting for his political life against antiwar candidate Ned Lamont in a party primary, still sought to identify himself with the core of its proposal. “My own hope still is that we will be able to begin that withdrawal by the end of the year,” he told the New York Times. But he still opposed any timetable. “I don’t believe Congress can say in August what the troops should do in December.”

In fact, U.S. military leaders in Iraq said earlier this summer there could be some drawdown of forces by year’s end if the situation improves on the ground — a position administration officials were talking up earlier this year. That seemed to give the Democrats’ latest position a little more political cover, too.

Although moderate for the party, the Democrats’ letter was still filled with a deeply pessimistic critique of the war that held out little if any hope things would change for the better, pointing to the increasing terrorist attacks and sectarian violence and the ever-rising casualties among U.S. soldiers there.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman fired off an angry political broadside saying signers “propose to cut-and-run from the central front in the war on terror. Waving a white flag in Iraq may appeal to the far left, but it will embolden the enemy, encourage more terrorism and make America less secure.”

However, the Democrats’ revised position on the war was a surprising move toward the center in a new campaign strategy that could appeal to enough swing voters in what it seems now will be a very close election.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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