By Jim VandeHei and Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Most Democratic candidates in competitive congressional races are opposed to setting a timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, rejecting pressure from liberal activists to demand a quick end to the three-year-old military conflict.
Of the 59 Democrats in hotly contested House and Senate races, a majority agree with the Bush administration that it would be unwise to set a specific schedule for troop withdrawal, and only a few are calling for substantial troop reductions to begin this year, according to a Washington Post survey of the campaigns.
The large number of Democrats opposed to a strict timeline for ending the military operations runs contrary to the assertion by President Bush and top Republicans that Democrats want to "cut and run" amid mounting casualties and signs of civil war. At the same time, the decision by many Democrats to refrain from advocating a specific plan for withdrawal complicates their leaders' efforts to convince voters that they offer a clear new direction for the increasingly unpopular war.
"It is like dropping a raw egg and asking me what my plans are for putting it back together," said Chris Murphy, the Democrat challenging Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.). Murphy favors bringing home National Guard and reserve units, or about 25,000 of the 138,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq, beginning next year, and leaving it to Bush's military commanders to determine the rest of the exit strategy.
While Republicans have largely stood by Bush in opposing a timetable for troop withdrawal, congressional Democratic leaders this month coalesced around calls to begin drawing down troop levels by December, with no specified pace or completion date. But rank-and-file Democrats are far from unified.
Among the 46 House races that nonpartisan political handicapper Charles Cook lists as the most competitive, 29 Democratic candidates oppose a date-certain to begin withdrawing troops. The dynamic is different among Senate candidates, however, with a higher proportion of Democrats willing to call for a timetable for troop withdrawal.
Seven of the Democrats running in the 13 Senate races deemed the most competitive by Cook have endorsed some version of a timetable. That would suggest that Bush could face heavy pressure to bring an end to U.S. involvement in the conflict if Democrats pick up seats or win back control of the Senate in November. Republicans currently hold a 55 to 45 majority in the Senate.
With polls showing that a majority of Americans believe it was a mistake for the United States to invade Iraq, some Democrats say the wisest political course is to blame Bush and the GOP for problems in Iraq but avoid getting drawn into a debate with Republicans over how they would go about dealing with the war.
"They want to give us this cut-and-run moniker and accuse us of a pre-9/11 mentality," said Diane Farrell, a Democrat who is challenging Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). "I absolutely refuse to be manipulated by Karl Rove and company."
Democrats are pressing Republican lawmakers to defend Bush's war policies in the face of mounting troop and civilian casualties in Iraq, and to explain why the GOP-controlled Congress did not scrutinize mistakes by the administration and the military in prewar planning. Democrats say they would have held Bush accountable for what they deem his mismanagement of the invasion, occupation and rebuilding of Iraq. They promise rigorous oversight of the war if they take control of either chamber.
In New Mexico's highly competitive 1st District, Democratic challenger Patricia Madrid last week aired her first Iraq-related campaign ad, faulting Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R) for refusing to stand up to Bush on the war. Madrid does not mention her own views on the war in the ad, which her spokeswoman said reflects a strategic decision to put the focus on Wilson.
"Heather Wilson is on the Intelligence Committee, but she never questioned George Bush on the war," the new ad says.
Murphy said his refusal to call for an immediate end to the war does not satisfy many of the antiwar Democrats in his state who helped Ned Lamont defeat Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in the recent Democratic primary. "There are many more people in this district who want us out of Iraq," he said.
In many ways, Democratic candidates' reluctance to call for the withdrawal of troops reflects the public's uncertainty over how best to proceed.
The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a nonpartisan polling organization, found this month that the public is evenly split over pulling out U.S. troops, with 48 percent in favor of keeping troops in Iraq and 46 percent in favor of withdrawal. Yet even among those who favor bringing U.S. troops home, only a third support doing so immediately. Asked another way, 52 percent of those polled said they would favor setting a timetable for getting out, while 41 percent would oppose that.
Most Republican incumbents and challengers in tight races are backing Bush in maintaining current U.S. troop levels until a sufficient number of Iraqi soldiers are trained and the new government is running more effectively.
A substantial number of GOP candidates are critical of the military's management of the conflict, but only a few have called for a major changes in strategy or a shakeup in the military.
"I think we need to put a new plan in place in Iraq," said Rick O'Donnell, the Republican candidate in Colorado's open 7th District. "I share the growing sense of trying to bring our troops home as quickly as we can, but we have got to do so in a way that does not leave a failed state."
Shays, who has defended the Bush approach throughout his campaign, this week returned from his 14th visit to Iraq and vowed to detail a timeline for withdrawing most U.S. troops next year. Shays appears to be embracing a position that Bush warned last week would weaken the country and embolden terrorists. GOP leaders are watching closely to see if other Republicans follow suit.
In many races, including the Shays-Farrell showdown, the candidates are offering similar messages in addressing concerns about the war.
In southeastern Virginia, for instance, Phil Kellam, the Democratic challenger to GOP Rep. Thelma D. Drake, sounds like a typical GOP candidate when discussing the war. "I believe we need to win there," said Kellam, who rejects timetables and a quick withdrawal. "We must fight terrorism and spread democracy throughout the world. Congress must stop playing partisan politics and honor its responsibility to our troops."
In Montana, home to one of the most competitive Senate races in the country, Democratic candidate Jon Tester has rejected calls for a timeline. But unlike the incumbent, Sen. Conrad Burns (R), Tester is harshly critical of the current Bush approach.
"I'm saying: Develop a plan to move the troops out of Iraq," Tester said. "That's a whole lot different than saying: Stay the course and be there forever." No Republican is advocating that the United States maintain high troop levels indefinitely.
Some Democrats, including Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), a former Marine, have called for a redeployment of troops in Iraq beginning this year. "There is no date that is too soon for me," said Nancy Nusbaum, the Democratic challenger in northeast Wisconsin's open 8th District.
But many Democratic candidates are wary of going too far in challenging Bush's policies, fearing that voters might heed the president's warning last week that "leaving before the job was done would be a disaster" for Iraq and the region.
Few Democrats are saying "get out now," as Bush suggested they were, and even most of the harshest war critics are opposed to cutting off funding for U.S. troops.
Democratic candidate Heath Shuler -- the former Redskins quarterback challenging Republican Rep. Charles H. Taylor in North Carolina's 11th District -- "does not believe an immediate withdrawal would be a good idea . . . because of the political vacuum it would create," said Andrew Whalen, a spokesman for the Shuler campaign. "He would support funding because we have to support our troops." Taylor agrees.
Democratic leaders in Congress who are intensifying criticism of the Bush war policy are generally opposed to dictating specific reductions in troop levels, too. Before the August recess, the top Democratic leaders and ranking members on national security committees agreed to a plan to begin redeploying some troops at year's end. But they stopped short of setting goals or outlining retaliatory steps they would take if Bush fails to draw down forces.
For instance, if Democrats wanted to take a hard line with Bush, they could threaten to hold up funding for military operations or take other steps to try to force the president's hand. There are no plans to do so.
"That is clearly the conundrum," said Michael Arcuri, the Democratic candidate in New York's wide-open 24th District. Although he supports bringing some troops home now and all of them by the end of 2007, Arcuri said, "I don't think we could ever, at any point, cut funding" for the military operation to exert pressure.