House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's embrace Wednesday of a rapid withdrawal from Iraq highlighted the Democratic Party's fissures on war policy, putting the House's top Democrat at odds with her second in command while upsetting a consensus developing in the Senate.
For months now, Democratic leaders have grown increasingly aggressive in their critiques of President Bush's policies in Iraq but have been largely content to keep their own war strategies vague or under wraps. That ended Wednesday when Pelosi (D-Calif.) aggressively endorsed a proposal by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq as soon as possible, leaving only a much smaller rapid-reaction force in the region.
The move caught some in the party by surprise. It threw a wrench into a carefully calibrated Democratic theme emerging in the Senate that called for 2006 to be a "significant year of progress" in Iraq, with Iraqi security forces making measurable progress toward relieving U.S. troops of combat duties. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said last month that "it's time to take the training wheels off the Iraqi government."
What's more, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) issued a statement Wednesday that was in marked contrast to Pelosi's. "I believe that a precipitous withdrawal of American forces in Iraq could lead to disaster, spawning a civil war, fostering a haven for terrorists and damaging our nation's security and credibility," he said.
Marshall Wittmann, a former Republican political strategist now with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said Pelosi may have resurrected her party's most deadly liability -- voters' lack of trust in the party on national security.
"If Karl Rove was writing the timing of this, he wouldn't have written it any differently, with the president of the United States expressing resolve and the Democratic leader offering surrender," Wittmann said, referring to Bush's top adviser. "For Republicans, this is manna from heaven."
David Sirota, a Democratic strategist in Montana long critical of the party leadership's timidity, fired back: "It is not surprising that a bunch of insulated elitists in the Washington establishment -- most of whom have never served in uniform -- would stab the Democratic Party in the back and attack the courage of people like Vietnam War hero Jack Murtha and Nancy Pelosi for their stand on Iraq."
For Democrats, Iraq presents a political quandary. Americans have clearly turned against the war, with a growing majority disapproving of the president's handling of the conflict and saying the invasion was not worth the costs. What they want done is far less clear.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a speech yesterday that military leaders "have not articulated well enough" to the American public what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of Iraq, he said, top U.S. officers "made a conscious decision" with the formal transfer of sovereignty in June 2004 to "step back a little bit in the press" and let the new Baghdad government "speak for itself publicly."
"But as a result of stepping back," Pace said, "I think we may have stepped back a little too far inside our own country with regard to explaining to our own people what we were doing."
House Republican leaders, meanwhile, are touting a bipartisan poll in November by RT Strategies that found half of registered voters support a withdrawal of troops only when the nation's goals are met, compared with 15 percent who want an immediate withdrawal and 29 percent who want a specific, public timetable for withdrawal. But a Pew Research Center poll in October found that 52 percent favored a withdrawal timetable, while 43 percent opposed one. An additional 1 percent said that U.S. troops should get out now.
Some Democrats continued yesterday to finesse their position. At a White House appearance after an event honoring civil rights leader Rosa Parks, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said: "If you just continue along the road we're going now without a more concrete transfer of responsibility -- a target schedule by which you begin to turn over provinces, by which you specifically begin to shift the responsibility -- I think a lot of people fear that it's going to be more of the same."
He added: "I'm not asking even for the specific timetable of withdrawal. I'm asking for a specific timetable of transfer of authority."
Pelosi hesitated for nearly two weeks before endorsing Murtha's call for the withdrawal of 160,000 U.S. troops, while she and her aides assessed the political fallout from his action. "What he has said has great wisdom," Pelosi said of her colleague on Wednesday. "While the president is digging a hole, Mr. Murtha is speaking from the light of day about the realities in Iraq, and so yes, I am supporting Mr. Murtha's proposal."
Her pronouncement Wednesday, more than anything, was proof that "the frustrations of the activist wing of the Democratic Party have boiled over," said a prominent Democratic pollster, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering clients.
Aides to Pelosi said yesterday that they are confident she and Murtha speak for a broader group. Since Murtha announced his position, he has received 14,000 e-mails, faxes and phone calls, 80 percent in support, aides said. Over Thanksgiving week, Murtha received a standing ovation in a Dallas Starbucks.
Staff writer Bradley Graham contributed to this report.