Fall of the D.C. Democrats

"Kerry's Iraq plan ... lays out a comprehensive new strategy to complete the mission in Iraq and bring our troops home. Its goal is to undermine the insurgency by simultaneously pursing both a political settlement and the draw down of American forces linked to specific, responsible benchmarks -- beginning with the draw down of 20,000 troops after successful Iraqi elections in December." -- from JohnKerry.com
What's powerfully obvious after John Murtha's speech last Thursday is that John Kerry and a host of other D.C. Democrats who have publicly "regretted" their Iraq votes and made calls for incremental withdrawal since the 2004 election are now standing in a political wilderness. The political premium on being identified as "against the war" has moved down the field, requiring politicians to actually -- gasp! -- call for total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq if they don't want to be like George Bush.

John Kerry's comprehensive new strategy to reduce the number of troops by 20,000 before the year ends comes off as completely fatuous in light of what Murtha proposed. Kerry could have said what Murtha did anytime he liked, stretching back to the moment before he cast his fatal vote for the Iraq war resolution in 2002. Employing a politics far more cynical than George Bush's, Kerry has been just fine with the invasion; only afraid to come out and say so, like most of his colleagues in Washington.

However bankrupt Rep. John Murtha's Iraq views happen to be -- and I'll get to those in a bit -- Democrats who want to be viewed as against the war will be forced to use starker language that reflects the terminology Murtha used in his speech and in the resolution he introduced in the House of Representatives:

  • Section 1. The deployment of United States forces in Iraq, by direction of Congress, is hereby terminated and the forces involved are to be redeployed at the earliest practicable date.

  • Sec. 2. A quick-reaction U.S. force and an over-the-horizon presence of U.S. Marines shall be deployed in the region.

  • Sec. 3. The United States of America shall pursue security and stability in Iraq through diplomacy.

Murtha in his speech referred to U.S. troop presence in Iraq as an "occupation." He also defined freedom in Iraq as a condition where U.S. troops are absent. The massive attention Murtha's speech received ensures at least a rhetorical shift for Democrats on Iraq. Blame-shifting re-evaluations on the Iraq resolution vote like California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's, "I would not have voted if I knew what I knew now," and apologies like Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's, "It was one of the biggest voting mistakes of my career" won't last much longer as sufficient "positions" on Iraq, and they never should have in the first place. Viewpoints on What to Do in Iraq will necessarily require a standpoint on whether to withdraw.

The House of Representatives of course didn't vote on Murtha's resolution, it voted on a non-binding Republican alternative, which said that it was the sense of the House that "deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately." It failed 403-3. While only 81 members of the Democratic House voted for the Iraq war resolution in 2002, they have been joined by another 60 House Dems who voted against it as part of a cowed caucus that has tiptoed and whispered on Iraq since the invasion.

The 140 or so House Democrats who have squeamishly supported the war in Iraq for the past two years got a lucky break; they didn't have to "take sides" as Murtha's bill would have forced them to do. Even as Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi attacked the House Republican leadership for replacing Murtha's resolution with a less palatable set of choices, she also said, "Mr. Murtha speaks for himself." Pelosi and her squeamish caucus have from now until the next time another political episode like Murtha's occurs before making a public statement on withdrawal.

But it can't be lost on anyone watching DC's political class in action that November 17, 2005 was an absurd date to begin discussing serious withdrawal from Iraq. It could have been done any ol' time starting in 2003. Murtha himself had spoken about the possibility of withdrawal in May 2004.

At the time, Murtha, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriation Committee's defense panel and often speaks as oracle of the Army's top brass, still had hope for the Pentagon top generals' view that Iraq could be "won" with a massive troop deployment. Murtha, who was a strong supporter of Reagan's cruel policies in Central America, and both Gulf Wars ("I led the fight to go to war in '91 with President Bush I. He knew what he was doing," Murtha said Sunday), suggested troop withdrawal only to set a sharp contrast to his deep-held belief that we needed a lot more soldiers in Iraq: "We either have to mobilize or we have to get out."

A year and a half later, and his and the Pentagon brass' hopes for more troops have become a stark impossibility. They are now firm believers in the second option. Asked by NBC's Tim Russert on This Week whether his views reflected those of Pentagon officers, he replied, "Oh, absolutely. I mean, there's nobody that talks to the people in the Pentagon more than I do."

Murtha's call for withdrawal wasn't about building a coalition to actually do that, because he would have found the 65 members of the "Out of Iraq" caucus standing by his side if he wanted. But Murtha told them not to step forward and support him. He explained to the press, "I didn't want [the public] to think this was a Democrat position plotted from the left wing."

What Murtha wanted was to send a clear message from the brass that loathes Donald Rumsfeld that they want out of Iraq now.

Although Murtha was speaking on behalf of his own special constituency, he demonstrated quite clearly that almost any senior Democrat could have said the same thing since the invasion and put the White House on the defensive. Let the Republican white-faced reaction to Murtha also be a lesson to those who believe we would have gone to war even if the Democrats had been united against it.

That's the most troubling thing about these D.C. establishment Democrats -- their legacy of cynical and imperial stands on foreign policy simply do not point to a time where they will stand on principle or reflect the desire of massive public majorities unless it's absolutely certain those positions are required for re-election. Meanwhile, the party in power will do whatever it takes to stay there. Expect the GOP to become the party of withdrawal, and for the Democrats to scream and moan that we botched our retreat.

It has to be clear by now that the D.C. Democrats cannot redeem themselves on Iraq. They've had years to do it. We're going to need an insurgency in the form of primary challenges against the squeamish Democrats in 2006 if we are going to hear honest calls for withdrawal.

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