Saturday, June 24, 2006

Democrat Differences Honest and Refreshing; Republicans in Congress "like the three monkeys -- see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil"

Some Democrats coming to terms with Iraq rift
By Patricia Wilson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With Iraq looming over critical U.S. congressional elections this year and the 2008 presidential campaign, some Democrats are beginning to be less fearful of the party split over the war.

While President George W. Bush, his political architect Karl Rove and Republicans in Congress step up their attacks, Democrats say the fact they are challenging the administration's conduct of the war will play well with voters in November when the balance of power in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives is at stake.

"We don't have a single answer," said Simon Rosenberg, founder of the centrist New Democrat Network. "I don't think we need one."

Democrats have differed openly on options in Iraq, ranging from quick withdrawal of the 127,000 U.S. troops there, to a gradual pullout, to the need for a stand-down plan, to support for the war effort.

They offered competing amendments in the Senate this week, one demanding Bush start pulling out combat forces immediately and finish the job by July 2007, and another urging a phased withdrawal starting this year but without a deadline for completion.

Republicans voted down both, dismissing the first as a "cut-and-run" plan and ridiculing the second as "cut-and-jog."

Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, a potential presidential contender in 2008, said on Friday the party's diversity of opinion on Iraq was a strength that stood in stark contrast to the broad Republican loyalty toward Bush.

"Although unity is important, it is not the most important value," Clinton told the second day of a conference sponsored by the New Democrat Network. "It is, I think, a tribute to the Democratic Party that we are honestly and openly struggling with a lot of the difficult issues facing our country."

After her speech, she told reporters that Republicans in Congress were "like the three monkeys -- see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."

Sen. Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat who is also considering a White House run, said Republicans were "totally united" behind Bush's "mishandling" of the war, a position that could backfire in the elections.

"I'm confident if you're a Democratic audience, there's a split view on Iraq," he told the NDN conference. "But one thing we're not divided on, we're not divided on how badly this administration has bungled the war."

Public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans now thinks the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was a mistake.

Rosenberg, who does not favor a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops, said Democratic unity on Iraq was not necessarily something the party should aspire to.

"I think consensus is an aspiration," he said, adding that Democrats had fulfilled their responsibility by coming together to challenge the Bush administration.

"We're doing what's required of us," he said.

Rising casualties and falling public support for the war have dragged down Bush's poll numbers and encouraged Democrats to believe they can seize control of Congress in midterm elections.

But they face a long-standing national security dilemma on Iraq, trying to balance the political costs of disappointing the party's anti-war activists with the risk of being cast as defeatist and weak on defense by Republicans.

Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, another potential Democratic presidential candidate who addressed the conference, said Rove and the White House were practicing "the politics of division, of red and blue America."

Warner said his biggest problem with Bush was that the president had missed an opportunity in the days after the September 11, 2001, attacks to challenge Americans "to step up."

"He's never asked us for shared sacrifice. He's never asked us to be part of the solution."

(Additional reporting by John Whitesides)