Murtha's Reality Check

By Terry M. Neal Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 22, 2005; 11:06 AM

Despite Rep. John Murtha's (D-Pa.) call to bring home the troops in Iraq, the consensus view in Washington is that the Democratic Party has no unified message on the war beyond criticizing the Bush administration's handling of it.

And that lack of message, many pundits and commentators are saying, will ultimately undermine the Democrats' ability to win the debate. Voters want solutions, not just criticism.

Murtha, a man most Americans had never heard of until last week, moved the debate forward by a mile. Because of the credibility he has among the Pentagon brass and GOP hawks, his call received far more attention than recent remarks by a number of Democrats with more prominent names (including Sen. John Kerry and his former running mate, John Edwards) who have renounced their votes on the original Iraq war resolution and called for a return of some or all of the troops on some sort of timetable.

The issue for Democrats isn't lack of message so much as it is lack of unity on what solutions they should be advocating for Iraq.

A senior Democratic staff member in the House told Talking Points on Monday that "generally there is no question that people want to get a change in the policy on Iraq. Clearly, what Bush is doing on stay-the-course is not working. There is some disagreement within the caucus about how to achieve that. Some want immediate pullout, some a longer timetable. Some thinking that [a timetable] is not the way to go at all."

The source, who asked to remain anonymous because it might displease House leaders to be talking about strategy and discord within the party, said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has called a meeting of House Democratic leaders on Dec. 7 to begin trying to build consensus on what to do with the troops in Iraq. But Pelosi has decided against a plan to have the conference endorse a version of Murtha's plan.

The party has had little guidance from other high-profile leaders, such as Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Last week he told reporters, "Jack Murtha went out and spoke for Jack Murtha." Asked about his thoughts on what the Iraq policy should be, Emanuel took a bold stand: "At the right time, we will have a position."

His comments were echoed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), an early favorite for the party's 2008 presidential nomination. Asked by National Public Radio where she stood, Clinton said, "You know, I really can't talk about this on the fly. It's too important."

In other words, Clinton and others are saying "we'll get back to you after our pollsters focus group it."

Murtha seems to think he's offering the nation a reality check. He said a vote on bringing the troops home is not a matter of if, but when. On NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Murtha predicted that the troops would be home by next November's midterm elections.

"We're going to get out," he said. "There is no question about it. We just have to figure out a bipartisan way to do it."

Murtha may be right. Both support for Bush and the occupation in Iraq continues to drop. A new Wall Street Journal poll has Bush's approval rating down to 34 percent. The problem for Democrats is that they're rated by the public even lower than the Bush administration and are essentially tied with congressional Republicans, with only about a quarter of the public approving of the job both are doing.

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