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A Party in Disarray: Democrats Turning on Each Other Over Iraq

by David Winston

“So the majority of the Democratic Senate is out of touch with the American people?” Tim Russert asked Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

“Yes, it is at this point,” the Senator and presidential hopeful responded. “Those who vote against bringing the troops home don’t get it.” Apparently, Feingold didn’t get the Democratic talking points claiming, contrary to political logic, that his party’s astonishing display of disunity last week on the Iraq war was really a “good thing.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), however, clearly did. On Friday, she let the spin begin by putting a happy face on her party’s total inability to coalesce around a single policy for winning the war in Iraq, saying, “I actually think we have come out for a more effective road map to the goal that all of us want, which is a successful outcome — an Iraqi government that can govern itself, keep its country together and fend off insurgents and sectarian violence.”

Given what’s become a bitter intraparty fight over the Iraq war that’s got Democrats sniping at each other, it’s no surprise that divining the Democrats’ Iraq war position has become Washington’s favorite parlor game these days.

Think “Survivor: Nantucket.” The tribe battles Republicans and each other as they jockey for strategic advantage in’06 and ’08. Will Hillary and Connecticut Joe be banished to Exile Island? Will the tribe forgive and welcome back John K? Can Al stop global warming and save the island? Who will be the ultimate survivor — Hoyer or Murtha?

This Democratic reality show almost would be an amusing summer season replacement were the issue at hand — the war against terror — not so serious. But the end-of-the-week buzz, pushed by the Democrats, that their splintered anti-war votes on the House and Senate resolutions last week were, in reality, a show of unity, is right out of the “P.T. Barnum School of Political Spin.”

No political party in its right mind wants this level of infighting. Does anyone, outside of the rest of the Democratic presidential wannabes, really think news reports showing far-left Democrats booing Clinton over her war position are helpful? Or the stories of disgruntled Senate Democrats carping that Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) put presidential ambitions ahead of the party with his ill-timed “cut and run” amendment?

Who honestly believes that Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (Conn.) primary battle, rooted in his support for the war, is good for the Democratic Party any more than Feingold’s shot at his own Democratic colleagues as being “out of touch”? Spin all you like, but the reality is that the Democrats’ disunity on the war is causing fratricidal internal fights within the party — primary fights, leadership fights and battles among the party’s many presidential candidates.

The Democrats clearly fumbled the ball last week. Given an opportunity to lead, they failed to offer American voters an alternative strategy for success in Iraq.

Their solution simply was to leave — some saying now, others a little later — but at its core, theirs was a policy of surrender, not success. As Kerry put it to Don Imus, “Our plan is very simple. It’s redeploy to win the war on terror.”

Republicans want the troops out as soon as possible, too, but they believe the mission ought to be accomplished first — establish a stable, secure and democratic Iraq that will be a strong ally against our enemies in the future. There is no question that the war in Iraq hasn’t gone as well as everyone had hoped. Like every war, mistakes were made in this one, too.

Over the weekend, it was reported that Gen. George Casey has indicated that possible troop reductions may begin later this year thanks to successes made on the ground — free elections, a new unity government in place, and more than 250,000 Iraqi troops trained and ready to stand up. That is quantitative progress and proof of a policy that is beginning to show results. It is also the Democrats’ worst nightmare because if troops do begin to come home, as everyone hopes, they are left with no policy at all.

Democrats have made it clear they want to nationalize this election. Last week, they had a perfect opportunity to sell the American people on their alternative plan to win the war on terror. They failed to deliver.

Instead, what voters learned was that the Democrats have no solution, no strategy other than to leave Iraq while offering up hollow platitudes such as “work closely with our allies,” “refocus our efforts” and “change to succeed.” You can’t beat something with nothing, and family feuds don’t lead to election victories.

Healthy debate within a political party over policy can have its upsides, but not when a party is incapable of producing a unified strategy that addresses the defining national security issue of our time — how to win the war on terror.

Beyond that, with all due respect to Clinton’s happy talk, the rest is all spin.

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A Week of Blessings for the GOP Majority That Needed Them

by David Winston

That sound you heard all over Washington, D.C., last Wednesday morning was Republicans breathing a huge collective sigh of relief that Republican Brian Bilbray had defeated Democrat Francine Busby in the special election to fill California’s 50th district House seat. That GOP victory, however, was just the first in a series of political and policy events that challenged the prevailing conventional wisdom and sent Democrats scurrying to their spin doctors for something — anything — positive to say about what quickly turned into a 72-hour political nightmare.

It began with Busby’s loss. For weeks, Democrats had been positioning for a win in this GOP-leaning seat, asserting that the “culture of corruption” would claim its first of many GOP victims thanks to the bribery conviction of ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).

Instead, Bilbray won the special election against Busby, who, despite the national hype, eked out only 45 percent of the vote — roughly the same percentage that the past two Democratic presidential candidates managed in the district. Clearly, predictions that voters would be outraged over Republican “corruption” and were ready to flock to the Democratic fold were wildly overblown.

Voters were indeed unhappy, but the target of their ire was another national issue: immigration. And on this topic, Busby was on the wrong side of the majority, particularly when she dropped her bombshell comment that illegal immigrants “don’t need papers to vote.” This from a candidate offering herself up as an ethical alternative to corrupt Republicans.

It was Bilbray who reflected the immigration views of the majority of voters — a focus on securing the border first, a view that separated him publicly from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his “comprehensive” position. On Wednesday, Democrats woke up to find that a seat they thought was in their grasp had slipped through their fingers.

If Democrats are to have any hope of winning back the House in November, California’s 50th district is exactly the kind of seat they have to win. Yet they failed to do so, despite pouring millions into a district that had been represented by the House’s poster boy for political corruption. What Democrats forgot is that when you try to nationalize an election, as they did using the “culture of corruption” mantra, winning candidates must offer voters more than an attack strategy. They also must have a platform of ideas that voters care about — a fact that Republicans understood in 1994.

But the loss of the special election was only the beginning of a bad week for Democrats. By Thursday, they once again found themselves on the defensive when good news arrived from Iraq — news too big to be ignored. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted terrorist in Iraq, had been killed by U.S. military air strikes on the same day that the new Iraqi government had filled its last and most important cabinet posts, Defense and Interior.

While many Democrats praised the military for their success, it was the outspoken and harsh comments of some in the party that put the media spotlight on the Democrats’ schizophrenic view of the war. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) said, “I don’t think we can win this,” while Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) predicted, “Two weeks from now you’re going to be showing people ripped off buses and beheaded.”

Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) won the prize, however, with his over-the-top comment that “this is just to cover Bush’s [rear] so he doesn’t have to answer” for the deaths of Iraqi civilians killed by the U.S. military. Other Bush critics such as The Nation’s David Corn tried desperately to downplay the significance of Zarqawi’s death by describing this most powerful of terrorists as “something of a sideshow.” Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) called Zarqawi a minor part in a “growing anti-American insurgency” and called for the U.S. to get out. This kind of naysaying about an undeniably important military victory won’t sit well with most Americans.

But if Thursday was bad for Democrats, by Friday, things had gotten even worse. Rumors of serious rifts in the House Democratic leadership burst into the open Friday as an apparently clairvoyant Murtha announced his intention to seek the Majority Leader’s job if Democrats win the House in November. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did nothing to stop what was sure to be seen by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and his supporters as a leadership “coup.”

Pelosi, still clinging to her “culture of corruption” strategy despite the Busby loss, had on Thursday evening tried and failed, at least temporarily, to oust the ethically challenged William Jefferson (D-La.) from his Ways and Means Committee post. In reality, she did little more than remind Americans about Democratic corruption while in the process angering the Congressional Black Caucus.

Murtha’s announcement only added to the perception that the Democratic House leadership is in disarray — hardly unified behind a national strategy or agenda to win in November. For Murtha to fire a shot over Hoyer’s bow almost five months before an election is a gift that Republicans hadn’t counted on.

Hoyer — who, unlike Pelosi, seems to have a better grasp of electoral reality — probably hadn’t counted on it either. Interestingly, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, took great pains Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” to avoid taking a position on the Murtha bid — a bit of a surprise from the Democrats’ usually pragmatic “Enforcer.”

In 1997, as a member of the leadership senior staff, I saw the impact of an attempted leadership “coup” on the morale and management of a House majority. It wasn’t pretty, and it certainly didn’t produce positive election results. The 1998 elections, in which the GOP lost seats counter to historical trends, offered proof that dissension can trigger negative outcomes.

Whether Pelosi was behind Murtha’s move or simply let it happen, the prospect of one of the House’s most hard-core liberals teaming with one of its most strident anti-war Democrats as the “face” of the Democratic Party this fall has Republicans smiling for a change.

One good week, however, doesn’t mean the GOP won’t face a big challenge in November. It will, and most GOP leaders understand that. But for Republicans who have suffered through a long spell of bad news, they were grateful that Democrats reminded the country last week why it remains a minority party.

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