WASHINGTON -- This has not been a good month for the Democrats who are more dispirited than ever before about what to do in Iraq.
When a party's leadership is unable to unite behind a clear position on the No. 1 national-security issue facing America, it is not ready to govern. And that is the situation the Democrats now find themselves in.
Last week, Democratic leaders produced an election-year agenda that said nothing about fighting the war on terror. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi blurted out the reason why: "We don't even have a party position on the war," she told reporters.
Then there was a series of House and Senate votes last week to test just how much support the Democrats' push for a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops could muster. All went down to overwhelming defeat.
The noisiest position coming out of the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party, fueled by an Internet army of left-wing bloggers, is for a swift military withdrawal of U.S. forces. That is the view of Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the party's newest hero who declared on Sunday's "Meet the Press": "We can't win a war like this."
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democrats' indecisive 2004 presidential nominee who has been on just about every side of the Iraq issue that one can possibly be, has joined Murtha in this debate. First, Kerry was for the war. Then he was partially for the war, if it was done right. He was against it before he was for it. Now, seeing the support Murtha is getting from the party's anti-war base, Kerry, plotting another run for the presidency, has proposed a pullout, too -- a position the Senate shot down last week.
But the Democrats' clear frontrunner for the presidency, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, thinks that would be a dumb move. Actually, she put it more politely, saying it's not "a smart strategy" to tell the terrorists in Iraq that we plan to withdraw, thereby leaving the nascent Iraqi government high and dry, and giving Al Qaeda terrorists their biggest victory since Sept. 11, 2001.
Clinton was roundly booed for saying this last week at a gathering of liberal anti-war Democrats, further exposing the deepening schisms in her party over Iraq and security issues in general.
This is a party at war with itself over the most important national-security issue of our time. The image it is sending is not just one of confusion and discord but of a party that shifts and retreats with the changing winds of public opinion, a party that has no deep abiding core convictions when the going gets tough -- as it often can and has and will in the global war on terror.
The Democrats think the bring-the-troops-home battle cry will lead to political victory in the November elections, and, in some close races, it could help them gain seats in Congress.
But before they begin measuring for new draperies in House Speaker Dennis Hastert's office, the Republicans are going to weigh in with some weighty arguments of their own in the coming midterm campaigns, arguments that are going to turn the election into a referendum on the war on terrorism and who can keep us safe because that's what's at stake in Iraq and in the region.
President Bush began to more sharply and graphically define the issue this week when he addressed about 5,000 Republican supporters at the President's Dinner, a giant party fundraiser here that reaped $27 million for the GOP's congressional campaigns.
"It's important to have members of the U.S. Congress who will not wave the white flag of surrender in the war on terror," Bush said Monday.
The image of the white flag of surrender is a disturbing symbol that raises deeply troubling questions about the anti-war Democrats who have chosen the worst possible time to press their pullout demands.
In election politics, as in strategic national-security policymaking, timing is everything. Sadly, the Murtha-Kerry Democrats want to withdraw at the very time when the democratically elected Iraqi government is more unified than ever in its war against the insurgents, when the Iraqi national army is becoming larger and better trained each month and shouldering more of the war's responsibilities, and when the terrorists have lost much of their leadership and base of support.
Hillary Clinton is right. This strategy isn't very smart. Retreat at this juncture in the war would embolden the terrorist insurgency in Iraq, encourage additional recruitment of Islamic fanatics who plot to attack the United States again and hand the Al Qaeda leadership a strategic victory here at home that they cannot win in Iraq.
But this is the very policy of retreat and surrender the Murtha-Kerry-Pelosi Democrats would champion if handed the reins of power in Congress this November.