By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 24, 2006
One day after suffering a pair of defeats on the Senate floor, Democratic leaders argued yesterday that their internal divisions over Iraq will help push the country toward a change in policy and accused Republicans of blindly following President Bush on a path that has been disastrous for the nation.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said Democrats emerged from this week's Senate debate more united than critics contend around a policy aimed at forcing the new Iraqi government to take responsibility for suppressing the insurgency. Party unity is important, she said, but not as valuable as an open debate about how best to change course.
"We're not blindly united like the other side is, where they are like the three monkeys -- 'hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,' " she told reporters after a speech to the Democratic group NDN. "They're not going to say anything negative about the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense or anybody else. I think that's irresponsible. It's negligent."
Clinton's comments reflected Democratic efforts to regroup on Iraq after being thrown on the defensive by Republican charges that they favor a "cut and run" policy of retreat and after seeing competing approaches to the withdrawal of U.S. forces lose badly on the Senate floor.
One proposal, written by Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), would have forced the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops by next summer. That proposal was rejected on a vote of 86 to 13, with the majority of Democrats opposed and many irritated that Kerry and Feingold had given the White House such a clear target to attack.
A competing resolution, sponsored by Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), called for troops to begin a redeployment by the end of this year but set no fixed timetable for their full withdrawal. That was rejected on a 60 to 39 vote, with six Democrats defecting to the Republicans and one Republican siding with the Democrats.
The aggressive Republican rhetoric throughout the debate caused considerable consternation among Democratic politicians and strategists. For several days, the Republicans enjoyed the upper hand in the political warfare on the Senate floor, with Democrats privately lamenting that they were losing the message battle despite what polls show is an unpopular war.
By yesterday, however, Democrats were saying that the Levin proposal demonstrates party consensus and reflects public opinion more clearly than do the president's policies.
Democrats said Republicans have now embraced an open-ended commitment in Iraq and predicted that the GOP will suffer at the ballot box in November unless there is a dramatic change for the better in Iraq. "They're united in a failed policy," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said of the Republicans on NBC's "Today" show yesterday.
Biden would not answer the question of whether the Kerry-Feingold proposal for a fixed timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops would hurt the Democrats. "We don't agree with John Kerry," he said. "The vast majority of Democrats don't think we should set a date of a time certain."
But Clinton said she is not disturbed by talk of Democratic divisions. "When people say, 'Gee, the Democrats seemed not to have a unified position,' I can very straightforwardly say I'm proud of the debate that we're having," she said. "We are trying to fulfill our responsibilities, in contrast to our friends on the other side, who have abdicated theirs."
Republicans dismissed the Democratic arguments, saying leaders such as Clinton and Biden are mischaracterizing the Democrats' proposals. "People want the troops out, but they want the troops out after the success has occurred," said Republican pollster David Winston. "What the Democrats were putting forth had nothing to do with success; it was just about getting out."
Winston also said the Democrats will have trouble making Iraq a central issue in the fall campaigns because "on the number one issue people are discussing, they have no plan because there's not consensus on their side."
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt offered a harsher appraisal, saying that the Democratic divisions add up to "surrender to the terrorists."
Recent polling shows support for reducing troop levels in Iraq and for politicians who advocate such a redeployment. A recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that 54 percent of those surveyed said they were more likely to support a candidate who favors pulling all American troops out of Iraq over the next 12 months.
That same poll showed that 57 percent of Americans favor reducing troop levels but that only 38 percent support a fixed timetable for removing them.
Clinton said her party's stance of "honestly and openly struggling" with the issue of Iraq is in contrast to the GOP's embrace of the White House's conduct. "There is very little willingness to do what should be done in holding this administration accountable," she said.