Ruben  Navarrette Jr.,
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Democrats in Congress bristle when Republicans accuse them of wanting to "cut and run" in Iraq. But here at home, in terms of the politics of the war, that's exactly what they're doing.

Democrats have decided that the Iraq conflict is one ugly baby, and they're right about that. But from their rhetoric and short memories, you'd never know they were directly involved in its conception.

That became evident when Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, sat down for a meeting with the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune. When asked what might happen in Iraq if Democrats reclaimed the House of Representatives next month, and possibly the White House in 2008, Davis tried to temper expectations by blaming Republicans for botching the war effort.

"Well," she said, "you know, it's always difficult to clean up someone else's mess."

Let's recap. A majority of Democrats in Congress voted to give President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq in 2002, and then voted -- more than once -- to continue to fund the effort. Some Democrats even hit the talk shows early on and made the case that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, or that a war in Iraq figured into the war on terror. And in the 2004 Democratic primary, the most outspoken critic of the war -- former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean -- was treated by several of his opponents as some crazy uncle who didn't understand the stakes in Iraq or the weight of decisions that had to be made by Democratic members of Congress.

Members such as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. After Kerry became their presidential nominee, Democrats put on quite a show at their national convention, where -- despite the anti-war leanings of delegates -- one speaker after another talked tough, saluted the flag and promised to hunt down terrorists wherever they were.

And now, Democrats want to turn on a dime and pretend as if the Iraq War is someone else's mess. With Iraq embroiled in civil war and U.S. troops overstaying their welcome, it's a mess all right. But let's be clear: It's a mess that Democrats helped make.

What's unclear is where they intend to go from here if they get the chance to lead the country. Many opponents of the war take it as a given that if the Democrats take the White House, an immediate pullout of U.S. troops would commence.

How can anyone be certain what would happen under a Democratic regime when Democrats themselves don't seem to know from day to day? This is a party that has, since the war began, tried to have it both ways.

On the one hand, Democrats wanted to appear strong and resolute in support of a president who toppled a dictator and liberated an oppressed people while putting to rest doubts that their party could be trusted to maintain national security. At the same time, they recognized that their base -- made up as it is of rabid Bush haters -- became energized whenever it got a glimpse of someone who opposed the war.

Reconciling all that isn't easy but Chris Wallace, host of "Fox News Sunday," gave Kerry a chance to do it during a recent interview. Wallace noted that in 2004, after it was clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Kerry insisted that -- knowing that -- he would have still voted to give the president the authority to go to war. Wallace contrasted that with what Kerry said just last week about how there was "nothing in my life in public service I regret more" than voting for the Iraq War resolution. What changed? Wallace asked.

Kerry said it came down to bad management of the war itself, and that the administration had abused its authority and made a series of mistakes including isolating America.

True, perhaps. But, given what we know about Kerry, that's not the real reason for his conversion. This is: While Kerry spent 2004 trying to convince the country that he was strong enough to lead at a time of war, now he's gearing up to run for president again and eager to woo the anti-war left. Along the way, Kerry has gotten tangled up in knots. The same goes for other Democrats. Caught between pragmatism and principle, it's not always clear they know which is which.

No wonder Democrats want to run away from this issue. Wouldn't you?

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Ruben Navarrette Jr.,

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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