The 2006 election looks like it will be all about Iraq. The unpopular war threatens the Republicans' majorities in Congress, so this month Republicans decided to go on the offensive.
First, they accused Democrats of having no alternative plan. "The Democrats haven't got any positive ideas, none of their own," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois. Then, when Democrats started to talk about setting a timetable for withdrawing troops, Republicans pounced, accusing them of being gutless and defeatist. "If we break our promise and cut and run, as some would have us do, the implications could be catastrophic," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee declared.
Democrats need to go to the voters with some kind of position on the war. But what?
Democrats are facing intense pressure from two directions—from Republicans and from their own Left. The Democrats' anti-war base is energized and angry. Some members of it booed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., last month when she declared at a liberal gathering, "Nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain [for withdrawal]. I do not agree that it is in the best interest of our troops or our country."
When the issue came to the Senate floor last week, anti-war activists favored the amendment introduced by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., that would set a date certain—July 1, 2007—for U.S. withdrawal. Kerry said on the Senate floor, "There's no other reason to be in Iraq a year from now other than standing up the Iraqi forces or chasing Al Qaeda or protecting our facilities." His co-sponsor, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., responded to Republican warnings that such a pullout would leave Iraq in chaos: "What is happening now is the horrible situation, not the imagined problems that the other side continually suggests will occur if we have a reasonable program to bring this to a conclusion within the coming year."
In the end, only 12 of 43 Democratic senators present voted for the Kerry amendment. What about those mentioned as possible 2008 White House candidates? Evan Bayh of Indiana, Joseph Biden of Delaware, Clinton, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, and Barack Obama of Illinois all voted no. Only Kerry and Feingold voted yes.
But every one of the potential 2008 Democrats voted for another amendment, sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., that set no deadline for the completion of troop withdrawal. Instead, it proposed a date for troop withdrawal to begin. "It says, by the end of this year, in the next six months, begin the phased redeployment of American forces from Iraq," Levin said. Thirty-eight Senate Democrats—an overwhelming majority—voted for the Levin amendment.
Five Democratic senators voted with the Republicans—against both amendments. One of them was Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who is facing a furious anti-war primary challenge. Lieberman explained his opposition to any timetable: "I fear that it would send another message to our terrorist enemies and to the sectarian militias in Iraq that America is not prepared to see this fight through until the Iraqis themselves can take over." Lieberman is the only blue-state Democrat running for re-election this year who voted no on both amendments.
Most Senate Democrats rejected the left and the right in favor of the middle. One of them was Kent Conrad, who is running for re-election in very red North Dakota. "I do not believe that it is a wise policy to set a specific date for a withdrawal from Iraq," he said during the debate. "I do believe it makes sense to begin to redeploy our forces sometime this year."
Under pressure from both sides, Senate Democrats were expected to end up divided and defensive. Instead, they carved out a strong consensus in the middle. "We may disagree or agree, but we've got a plan," Biden said. "Republicans are totally united in a failed policy."
In the end, both amendments lost. But the Democrats did accomplish something. They found their voice and a position they can take to the voters this fall.