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 broke with his party leadership last week to become the first senator to call for all troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by a specific deadline.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.
"It is time to stand up and begin questioning the president's leadership," said Steve Jarding, a Democratic consultant who ran the 2001 state campaign of Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, now a potential presidential candidate. "I think the Democrats need to do that. . . . The American public is ready to say, 'Enough is enough.' "
Feingold said, "We have to go on the offensive to show the American people that we're not afraid to disagree." He said that he believes an immediate withdrawal does not make military sense but that the public needs reassurance that the Iraq operation is moving purposefully toward completion. "We need to talk in Congress about this more openly and freely," Feingold said. "There's a rudderless quality that is making [people] nervous."
The potency of antiwar sentiment within the party's base could be seen in the enthusiasm expressed for Feingold among liberal Internet bloggers in the days after he made his withdrawal proposal. Unscientific Internet polls showed support rising for a Feingold presidential run in 2008.
Liberal bloggers have lambasted the party leadership for missed opportunities. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee conducted a confirmation hearing for Bush confidante Karen Hughes, tapped as the next undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, not a single Democrat showed up to grill her on administration policy.
"Excuse me, but do you ENJOY being in the minority?" complained an entry that day on Think Progress, the blog for the Center for American Progress, a think tank run by former Clinton White House chief of staff John D. Podesta. While publicly quiet, Podesta has been one of many influential voices behind the scenes calling for a louder, more frequent drumbeat on the war, along with members of a national security group that advises congressional Democrats.
Turning Iraq into a sharply partisan issue, however, carries deep risks for Democrats and the country, others warn. "Credit the Democrats for not trying to pour more gasoline on the fire, even if they're not particularly unified in their message," said Michael McCurry, a former Clinton White House press secretary. "Democrats could jump all over them and try to pin Bush down on it, but I'm not sure it would do anything but make things worse. The smartest thing for Democrats to do is be supportive."
And some argue that Democrats do not need to craft an alternative policy, deeming it better simply to let Bush struggle on his own. "The need for a coherent alternative mattered more when the benefit of the doubt went to the commander in chief," said Jeremy Rosner of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic polling firm. "Now he's getting to a dicey range of public opinion."
Still, the Democratic discord has provided solace for Bush advisers at a difficult time. Although Bush's approval ratings have sunk, the Democrats have gained no ground at his expense. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll in June, just 42 percent of Americans approved of congressional Democrats, a figure even lower than Bush's.
Republican strategists chortle at the Democrats' inability to fashion a coherent message on the war. The Republican National Committee on Friday released a series of contrasting Democratic statements on troop withdrawals. "Instead of attacking our president's resolve," RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said in a statement, "Democrats might want to focus on the debate within their own party."
One problem for Democrats is that even when they do speak up about Iraq, they draw little attention. In late June, congressional Democrats and Republicans spent three evenings on the House floor reading the names of the 1,719 soldiers who had died in the war to that point. In July, Democrats wrote a stern letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanding more details about White House plans for Iraq and released a comprehensive study of administration failures to meet reporting requirements on the war.
It was all drowned out by the president's Supreme Court nomination, the London bombings and other news. "Many of us are talking about the war, talking about the costs," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who is leading the effort to recruit Iraq veterans to run next year.
Some Democrats suspect the Iraq debate will escalate once Congress reconvenes after Labor Day. Senate Democrats said they would push to revive the Defense Department authorization bill, shelved by Republican leaders before the break in anticipation of a blizzard of Democratic amendments, many addressing the Iraq war.
"The American people are much farther ahead in their thinking about the war than the White House or the Republican Congress," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "They understand we can't continue down this same failed course in Iraq."