Thursday, December 1, 2005

The White House moved aggressively yesterday to exploit a growing rift among Democrats over the question of a pullout from Iraq, while other Republicans cheered the split as “chaos.”

One day after President Bush gave a major speech outlining his plan for victory in Iraq, the Republican Party expressed delight that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi endorsed a pullout plan proposed by fellow Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha. Such a withdrawal is opposed by most Democrats, especially White House contenders and members of Congress facing competitive elections.

“While Nancy Pelosi and the left wing adopt a defeatist position of retreat in Iraq, many other Democrats are scrambling to distance themselves from their pessimism,” Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz said yesterday.

Meanwhile, White House press secretary Scott McClellan lashed out at critics of the president’s speech.

“Democratic congressional leaders who try to suggest that we don’t have a plan are deeply irresponsible,” he told reporters.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, in his portion of the Democratic Party’s response to the president’s speech, said he disagreed with Mr. Murtha’s call for a withdrawal from Iraq. But yesterday, Mr. Kerry told NBC that America’s “large presence is part of the problem.”

Mr. McClellan said yesterday, “They’re very hard to reconcile, Senator Kerry’s views on Iraq.”

Public-opinion surveys were mixed in assessing the impact of Mr. Bush’s speech Wednesday at the U.S. Naval Academy. A Gallup poll taken immediately after the speech found that a 54 percent majority gave a “poor” or “very poor” rating to the president’s handling of Iraq. But that poll also showed that by a 59 percent to 35 percent margin, respondents rejected the idea of a specific timetable for U.S. withdrawal.

Meanwhile, a Fox News poll conducted Tuesday and Wednesday showed that Mr. Bush’s job-approval rating had risen to 42 percent, up from its all-time low of 36 percent Nov. 8 to 9. But the president still got negative ratings from 48 percent of those in the Fox poll.

White House officials said they hope additional speeches by Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney next week will flush out more Democrats on the politically charged issue of a pullout.

By sharpening the debate on Iraq, the president has also increased pressure on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who is widely regarded as the leading Democratic candidate for president in 2008. Mrs. Clinton, a lifelong liberal, opposes a pullout, which has angered her party’s leftist base.

The Democratic disarray began last month, when Mr. Murtha said American troops “have become the enemy” in Iraq, which he said deserves to be “free from United States occupation.” He called for a pullout, but a House measure to that effect was defeated 403-3.

Despite the overwhelming defeat, Mrs. Pelosi said Wednesday, “I’m endorsing what Mr. Murtha is saying. I believe that a majority of our caucus clearly supports Mr. Murtha.”

Yet the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, strongly disagreed with his leader.

“I believe that a precipitous withdrawal of American forces in Iraq could lead to disaster, spawning a civil war, fostering a haven for terrorists and damaging our nation’s security and credibility,” Mr. Hoyer said.

Republicans seized on the signals of division among Democrats.

“Pelosi’s support for immediate troop withdrawal has set the Democrats into chaos on the Iraq issue,” said a senior Republican Party official. “Not only do the Democrats have no plan on Iraq, they have no unity.”

White House officials privately blame the president’s low job-approval ratings on his reluctance to forcefully defend his Iraq policy against fierce attacks by Democrats in the year after re-election. Mr. Bush began to fight back Nov. 11, when he called Democrats “deeply irresponsible” for saying he had manipulated prewar intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Since then, the White House has significantly ramped up its rhetoric in an effort to give Americans a clearer choice between Republicans and Democrats on the difficult issue of Iraq. Presidential aides acknowledge that they made an enormous blunder by becoming preoccupied with Social Security reform while letting Democrats conduct a yearlong monologue on Iraq.

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