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Top Dems' split on Iraq shows party's struggle
San Francisco Chronicle


June 14, 2006

WASHINGTON - In a span of 90 minutes this week, three prominent Democrats offered competing visions of how to proceed in Iraq and displayed how difficult it will be to turn what was once the Republican Party's strongest asset into its electoral downfall.

As President Bush was returning from his surprise visit to Baghdad, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, a leading contender for the Democratic Party's 2008 presidential nomination, told a gathering of nearly 2,000 liberals that the war was a "strategic blunder" but warned it would not be in the nation's interest to "set a date certain" for withdrawal.




She was followed by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who told the same group the war was a "grotesque mistake" and that troops should be withdrawn "at the earliest practical date."

Moments later, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the party's standard bearer in 2004, said he had made a mistake by voting to authorize the president to use military force in Iraq, and he called for a "hard and fast deadline" for troop withdrawal.

Democrats have put aside many differences in their common yearning to gain seats in the 2006 midterm congressional elections. Yet when it comes to the war that has polarized the nation, and by some accounts is shaping up as the biggest issue in the November election, Democrats are struggling to speak with a single voice.

A USA Today/Gallup poll released Tuesday found that most Americans considered the killing of al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi a "major achievement" and suggested that opinion which has turned steadily against the war remains volatile.

The poll found that 51 percent of Americans still say it was a mistake to go to war in Iraq, a drop from nearly 60 percent at the end of last year. The new poll found that 48 percent believe the war is winnable, up from 39 percent in April.

And the Democratic disagreements on display Tuesday came on the eve of debates in the House and Senate over the future of the war, which leaders hope will clarify the different views of the two parties.

After months of negotiating, Democrats have united around a common call that 2006 be a "year of significant transition" in Iraq, a statement so broad that it would be hard for anyone, the president included, to disagree.

Strategists have given Democrats mixed advice; some have called on Democrats to exhibit spine by demanding a swift pullout, while others have warned the party risks a backlash if they are seen either as weak or as trying to exploit violence for political purposes.

The conflict was evident Tuesday as Clinton, long a favorite of the party's left, spoke before liberals at the "Take Back America" conference in the ballroom of a Washington hotel.

"I have to just say it: I do not think it is a smart strategy either for the president to continue with his open-ended commitment," she said, "nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain. I do not agree that that is in the best interest of our troops or our country."

Many in the crowd cheered. Many booed. Hecklers began yelling, "Bring the troops home." And when Clinton had finished speaking, she was met by a loud chants of, "Bring the troops home, now!"

By contrast, Kerry, who like Clinton is believed to be eyeing a possible presidential candidacy in 2008, delivered an unambiguous indictment of Bush's conduct of the war, displaying clarity and rhetorical resolve that was often missing during his losing campaign against the Republican president in 2004.

Kerry called Iraq and Vietnam the "two most failed foreign policy choices" in the nation's history, and he made a biting contrast between Bush's surprise visit to Iraq early Tuesday and the president's lack of combat duty in Vietnam.

"Now, I fully understand that Iraq is not Vietnam. After all, President Bush is even there today," Kerry said.

Kerry, who earned two Purple Hearts and a silver medal in Vietnam, went on to draw parallels between the current conflict and the war he protested as a returning veteran in the early 1970s.

In both conflicts, Kerry said, the U.S. intervened "based on official deceptions" and to fight "a larger global war under the misperception that the particular theater was just the latest battleground."

"And as in Vietnam, we have stayed and fought and died even though it is time for us to go," Kerry said. "It was right to dissent from a war in 1971 that was wrong and could not be won. And now, in 2006, it is both a right and an obligation for Americans to stand up to a president who is wrong today."


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