By Stuart Rothenberg
“What we’ve got here is ... failure to communicate.”
That’s the line actor Strother Martin uttered in the classic film “Cool Hand Luke,” but it just as easily could have been said by a thoughtful Member of the U.S. Congress in recent weeks.
Members on both sides of the aisle are sounding so frazzled these days that a few hours of professional therapy are in order. Clearly, neither party knows what to do next on Iraq.
Frustration has been building up for months on Capitol Hill, and we finally got our explosion shortly after Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. John Murtha announced that it was time to pull out of Iraq.
Outraged that Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) used the words “coward” and “Murtha” in the same sentence, and that other Republican House Members had bashed Murtha’s comments, Democrats rushed to Murtha’s defense. Not that he needed it. He can take care of himself.
Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) charged across the House floor berating the recently minted Republican Congresswoman from Ohio, while Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) branded the “Republican attacks” as “sickening.”
Republicans are frustrated because the war in Iraq has become an albatross around their necks. They had hoped — expected — that things would go better. For many, the only option is hunkering down and hoping that things will improve in the future. That’s not an approach that most politicians prefer, particularly when elections are approaching.
For weeks, Democrats have all but called the president of the United States a liar and a cheat who “manipulated” intelligence and “misled” the nation into war. With left-wing conspiracy theorists running amok on the Internet and Cindy Sheehan trying to confront President Bush at his ranch and at the White House to demand an end to the Iraq war, it’s no wonder many Republicans are frustrated and angry.
But Republicans also know that Democrats are trying to have it both ways when it comes to the war in Iraq — berating the president for misleading us about intelligence to drag the country into an unnecessary war and pummeling him for all the bad news emanating from Iraq, while at the same time emphasizing their support for the troops and opposition to a quick exit from Iraq.
Murtha called for the United States to withdraw all of its troops from Iraq within six months, a rash proposal by any account. More than five dozen House Democrats applauded Murtha’s proposal, but most high- profile Democratic leaders said that while they admired the Pennsylvania Congressman, they opposed his plan.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) called an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq “a big mistake,” while Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, “I don’t support immediate withdrawal” from Iraq.
Republicans must feel as if they are witnessing a good cop/bad cop routine being played out, with party bigwigs such as Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Reid, Clinton and even liberal House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) trying to appear as statesmen while others rip away at the president’s character and policies.
Republicans have no choice but to challenge Murtha and try to entice Democratic leaders to climb aboard the “out now” bandwagon. They have to force Congressional Democrats to declare flatly whether they support the war or oppose it.
Democrats are also frustrated.
They believe the Bush administration didn’t level with them completely before the president gave the order to attack Iraq, tricking them into supporting a position that they now believe to have been a fraud. Yet many of them can’t quite figure out how to change their positions without looking like a newer version of George Romney, the one-time governor of Michigan who undermined his own credibility by saying that he had been “brainwashed” about the war in Vietnam.
Democrats are also frustrated about their continued inability to figure out how to deal with military, defense and national security issues generally.
Remember, this is a party that thought it could inoculate itself against expected charges during the 2004 presidential race by nominating a Vietnam War veteran and by marching a dozen or so former generals onto the stage at the Fleet Center in Boston to attest to the party’s patriotism and toughness. Not only did that not work, but Iraq almost certainly cost Kerry the White House.
Now, Democrats are caught in a bind once again. Do they fall back on being the anti-war party, as many in their grass roots would prefer? Or do they try to change their image fundamentally by talking and acting tough about terrorism and Iraq? And if the party is divided, what message will that send to the American public?
In the short term, Democrats certainly are benefiting from Iraq. But neither party seems to have a good handle on where to go from here.
This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 28, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
By Stuart Rothenberg