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Democrats Split Over Position on Iraq War

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By Peter Baker and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 22, 2005

Democrats say a long-standing rift in the party over the Iraq war has grown increasingly raw in recent days, as stay-the-course elected leaders who voted for the war three years ago confront rising impatience from activists and strategists who want to challenge President Bush aggressively to withdraw troops.

Amid rising casualties and falling public support for the war, Democrats of all stripes have grown more vocal this summer in criticizing Bush's handling of the war. A growing chorus of Democrats, however, has said this criticism should be harnessed to a consistent message and alternative policy -- something most Democratic lawmakers have refused to offer.

The wariness, congressional aides and outside strategists said in interviews last week, reflects a belief among some in the opposition that proposals to force troop drawdowns or otherwise limit Bush's options would be perceived by many voters as defeatist. Some operatives fear such moves would exacerbate the party's traditional vulnerability on national security issues.

The internal schism has become all the more evident in recent weeks even as Americans have soured on Bush and the war in poll after poll. Senate Democrats, according to aides, convened a private meeting in late June to develop a cohesive stance on the war and debated every option -- only to break up with no consensus.

The rejuvenation of the antiwar movement in recent days after the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq set up camp near Bush's Texas ranch has exposed the rift even further.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) broke with his party leadership last week to become the first senator to call for all troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by a specific deadline. Feingold proposed Dec. 31, 2006. In delivering the Democrats' weekly radio address yesterday, former senator Max Cleland (Ga.), a war hero who lost three limbs in Vietnam, declared that "it's time for a strategy to win in Iraq or a strategy to get out."

Although critical of Bush, the party's establishment figures -- including Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) -- all reject the Feingold approach, reasoning that success in Iraq at this point is too important for the country.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who rose to public prominence on an antiwar presidential campaign, said on television a week ago that it was the responsibility of the president, not the opposition, to come up with a plan for Iraq.

"Clearly Democrats are not united in what is the critique of what we're doing there and what is the answer to what we do next," said Steve Elmendorf, a senior party strategist whose former boss, then-House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. "The difficulty of coming to a unified position is that for a lot of people who voted for it, they have to decide whether they can admit that they were misled."

The internal disarray, according to many Democrats, reflects more than a near-term tactical debate. Some say it reveals a fundamental identity crisis in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world for a party that struggled to move beyond the antiwar legacy of the 1960s and 1970s to reinvent itself as tougher on national security in the 1990s.

But historic fault lines in the party run deep. Along with high gasoline prices, the war has fed public discontent that is expressing itself as members of Congress tour their home districts during the August recess. Democratic officeholders watched carefully last week as peace demonstrators -- inspired by grieving mother-turned-activist Cindy Sheehan outside Bush's ranch near Crawford, Tex. -- staged more than 1,000 candlelight vigils across the country.

They also took note of the strong showing of Democrat Paul Hackett, an Iraq veteran turned war critic who nearly snatched away a Republican House seat in a special election in Ohio this month. House Democratic leaders now are recruiting other Iraq veterans to run in next year's midterm elections.


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