Political Pulse June 2006

Split Decisions

Polls indicate that Republican voters are more divided over Iraq than are Democrats.
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The House of Representatives has voted on Iraq. But how representative were its members?

In the House, 37 percent voted in favor of setting a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Was that vote representative of public opinion on the war? No. In a CNN poll taken last week, just after the president's surprise trip to Baghdad, 53 percent of the public favored setting such a timetable.

Most House Democrats voted with their leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, who said in the debate, "We have a responsibility to not 'stay the course' of thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of injuries.... It's time for us to come home and meet the needs of the American people."

The vote among House Democrats: 78 percent for a timetable, 22 percent against. How well did they represent the views of Democratic voters? Pretty well, actually. Among Democrats nationwide, the CNN poll found that 73 percent supported a timetable for withdrawal and 23 percent were opposed.

The Republican vote in the House was nearly unanimous in favor of the leadership and White House position, as stated by Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.: "We must renew our resolve that the actions of evildoers will not dictate American policy." A near-unanimous 99 percent of House Republicans voted against setting a timetable. Only three Republicans supported a timetable. One was Rep. John Duncan of Tennessee, who voted against the use of force in Iraq in 2002, saying there was no proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

"Mr. Speaker," Duncan said during the House debate on withdrawal, "a few days ago, I found out that a rating service ... rated me as the sixth-most conservative member of this body. And yet I am steadfastly opposed to this war, and I have been since the beginning. Mr. Speaker, we need to start putting our own people first once again and bring our troops home—the sooner the better."

Duncan's position turns out not to be so lonely, however. Nearly one-third (31 percent) of Republican voters nationwide said they favor a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.

House Republican leaders scheduled the vote to seize the offensive in the Iraq debate after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq. Their intention was to expose Democrats as divided over a timetable for withdrawal. They succeeded. In the House vote, Democrats were more divided than Republicans. But in public opinion, Republicans are more divided over Iraq than Democrats are. And anti-war Republicans are becoming alienated from their party's leaders.

One of those alienated Republicans is, or was, James Webb—Vietnam War hero, best-selling author, and secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration. Webb, a Virginian, supported George W. Bush for president and Republican George Allen for Senate in 2000. But Webb broke with the Republican Party over Iraq. He criticized the decision to invade Iraq in September 2002, six months before the war. "The issue before us is not simply whether the United States should end the regime of Saddam Hussein," Webb wrote in The Washington Post, "but whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years. Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade and stay."

Last week, Virginia Democrats nominated Webb to challenge Allen for the Senate. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said, "With Jim Webb as the Democratic nominee in Virginia, we have an opportunity to give George Allen a real run for his money." In his primary-night victory speech, Webb said, "It's time to welcome home those Democrats who left for a time, the Reagan Democrats, the conservative Democrats.... It's time to welcome them home."

Webb got the blessing of such prominent Democrats as Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. What Democrats are saying to anti-war Republicans is, "You don't have to be lonely. You come here and stay with us."

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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