Out of the desert?

The president is sinking in Iraq. Do Democrats have a solution?

By Tim Grieve

Published June 22, 2005 8:01PM (EDT)

When Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist walked out of his "come to Jesus" meeting with the president yesterday and announced that he was flip-flopping on whether he'll try for another floor vote on John Bolton, well, you could understand if Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid felt like taking a moment to gloat. The Republicans in the Senate are in "such disarray," he said, "that they have to go to the White House to have cheerleaders."

Reid has plenty of reason for cheer. Senate Democrats dodged the bullet on the "nuclear option," they've got both Bolton and Bush's Social Security plan in the deepfreeze, and they're standing by as the president's approval ratings slide ever closer to the psychologically significant sub-40 range.

And yet Democrats generally -- and Senate Democrats in particular -- still have little to offer in terms of a clear alternative vision on what ought to be the biggest issue facing the country: the war in Iraq, and how to end it in a way that isn't a disaster for everyone. Reid and his Democratic colleagues are meeting in private on Capitol Hill today, and Iraq is on the agenda. The war "has not been getting the attention it deserves from the president or the majority party and not even from us," Sen. Russ Feingold tells Roll Call. Democrats, he says, have to begin to "show some leadership."

Lead yes, but to where? This is where the Democrats, at least those in the Senate, begin to run out of steam. While there are increasing calls around the country and in the House for a timetable or at least an exit strategy of some sort, Democrats in the Senate seem reluctant to embrace anything of the sort. So what you hear are a lot of variations on the "we'd do what Bush is doing, only we'd do it better" theme -- we'd really train the Iraqi security forces, we'd really work more with neighboring countries, we'd really get the troops the armor and other supplies they need.

And maybe that's all there is to say if you're not willing to say, "Bring the troops home." Of course, some Democrats are willing to say that. Last week, Democrats Dennis Kucinich and Neil Abercrombie joined two House Republicans in introducing a resolution calling for the beginning of a withdrawal of troops by October 2006. And more than 40 House Democrats have formed an "Out of Iraq" caucus.

But more often, you hear words like those that Barack Obama uttered in an interview with the Washington Post this week. "There aren't any easy answers," Obama said. "It would be irresponsible to just spout off without having thought through what all the alternatives -- and implications of those alternatives -- might be."

You'd hope that Obama and his colleagues in the Senate would have spent a lot of time thinking through the alternatives and implications by now; you'd also hope that Obama, he of the legendary Democratic Convention speech, would have a more compelling way of speaking about the problem Iraq presents. But when Democrats speak passionately these days, they get their hats handed to them -- Chairman Dean? Sen. Durbin? Rep. Pelosi? -- and their messages get lost in the ensuing fray.

That's not by accident, of course -- the Republicans have perfected the art of taking offense -- but the Democrats have to find a way to work through it or around it. Perhaps they need to look at voices beyond their own and frames beyond those stamped with the George Lakoff seal of approval. Perhaps they need to listen to someone like Molly Ivins.

Proving once again that not all Texans are idiots, Ivins uses her column this week to keep the light on the Downing Street memo. In the process, she offers Democrats a way to talk about Iraq that could appeal to a whole lot of those red-state voters who are finally beginning to lose confidence in the president and the progress made in the war he sold them. Liberals aren't "cheering every time another American is killed," Ivins writes. "Real, actual, honest-to-God American liberals are out here in the heartland, and we know the kids who are dying in Iraq. They are from our hometowns. We know their parents. That's why we hate this war. That's why we tried to tell everybody else it was a ghastly idea. We are not sitting here gloating because it is the horrible mess we said it would be. We're in agony."

If the latest public opinion polls are right, Ivins is treading on some pretty common ground there; Americans may not be in "agony" just yet, but a lot of them are in a funk. If Democrats can start by showing that they feel that pain -- now, where have we heard that before? -- their party may begin to find a way out of desert in which it's now wandering.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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