Don't Be Fooled by Bush Polls, Democratic Council Warns

By John F. Harris and Chris Cillizza
Sunday, December 18, 2005

Rising public frustration with the Iraq war and low approval ratings for President Bush look to many Democrats like an opportunity for big gains with voters in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

But two of the party's top strategists say this opportunity may be something else: a trap.

Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, and pollster Mark Penn wrote a strategy memo to DLC supporters last week warning party leaders not to use Bush's problems as an invitation to call for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, or generally to steer a more liberal course that could alienate the middle-of-the-road voters the party needs.

"It is important for Democrats to understand that despite Bush's decline, America remains a moderate to conservative country -- particularly on economic and security measures," the two wrote. While a poll taken by Penn for the DLC showed voters opposing the Iraq war 54 to 44 percent, they warned that "Democratic leaders could be playing with political dynamite if they call for an immediate pullout of American troops."

The memo is the latest illustration of deep divisions among Democrats over the right stance on Iraq -- on policy and political grounds. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who supports a rapid withdrawal starting now, has estimated that half the Democratic caucus agrees with her.

From and Penn said the most defensible ground for Democrats is a middle path: rejecting deadlines for troop withdrawal but endorsing "clear benchmarks" to measure progress and hold Bush accountable for the results.

The DLC has been arguing since its inception 20 years ago that the party needs to transcend its liberal activists and traditional interest groups to be electable nationally, a message that has rarely varied with any new issue or circumstance. From and Penn say the latest evidence still supports them.

In Penn's survey, 13 percent of voters said they would favor a "liberal Democrat" for president, and 43 percent of independent voters said they regard the party as "too liberal." Forty-two percent of these unaligned voters also said they perceive the party as becoming more liberal.

While the problems of Bush and Republicans have "opened the door" for Democrats, Penn and From wrote, to take advantage of this "Democrats need to capture the vital center and bring an abrupt halt to what voters see as the party's drift to the left."

Lott: Katrina's on My Mind

Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said personal losses he suffered from Hurricane Katrina will weigh on his decision about seeking reelection in 2006.

Lott's waterfront home in Pascagoula was destroyed by the Aug. 29 storm. "It was about half my net worth. I have a $400,000 loss after the flood insurance," the Associated Press quoted Lott as saying.

"From a personal standpoint, I need a little more income. But the people I care most about, those on the coast, are hurting and need help." Another consideration, he said, is that he "so disappointed with the administration's response to this disaster that I'm almost embarrassed."

UAW Goes for the Dark Horse

The underdog Senate candidacy of Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett (D) in Ohio got a major boost last week when the United Auto Workers endorsed him over Rep. Sherrod Brown in the Democratic primary.

Ohio UAW director Lloyd C. Mahaffey said the union backed Hackett because he was the stronger general election candidate against Sen. Mike DeWine (R), a major Democratic target.

The announcement came as a surprise to Brown, who has been a favorite of organized labor. Brown said Friday he would "continue to speak out for workers' rights."

Cillizza is a staff writer for His online column of political news, The Fix, appears daily at

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