(Crossposted at Daily Kos)

Nearly three years into the illegal, unnecessary war on Iraq, a conflict that has cost this nation thousands of lives and billions of dollars, and has taken the lives of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Iraqis, the Democratic Party has still not come out against the war, has still not united around the growing chorus of voices calling for withdrawal.

There are essentially three explanations for this behavior.

Explanation 1: Democrats Lack Backbone
This is such an old standby, it hardly needs to be explained.  For some years now (why and when varies in the telling) Democratic politicians have been afraid to act upon their progressive impulses.  This is especially true when it comes to national security.  If this is the problem, the solution is clear:  work to steel the resolve of Democrats in Washington to do what they themselves, in their heart of hearts want to do.  A corollary, of course, is that if they were in power, they would no longer feel scared of doing the right thing.

But why should Democrats who are honestly in favor of withdrawal be at all scared of publicly expressing their views?  Polls show the public heavily trending their way. The Democratic base which, especially in the case of Congressional Dems, who come overwhelmingly from gerrymandered districts, are the heart of their constituency, have long been against the war.  How can spinelessness explain the refusal to take positions that the public already favors?

Explanation 2: Since Democrats Are Out of Power, Not Having an Iraq Policy Makes Political Sense
This is a newer argument, but it is in many ways a variation of Explanation 1.  Only instead of being a weakness, the Democrats lack of a clear position on the war is sold as a strength.   Since the GOP controls both Houses of Congress and the White House, the Democrats can do nothing to change the situation in Iraq.  So the politically clever thing to do is to criticize the GOP’s Iraq policy without making the fatal error of proposing a controversial alternative policy that has no chance of being adopted.  This explanation for the Democrats’ behavior on Iraq has almost become the official position of the front page of dKos.  Variations of it appear here, here, and here (this last one is a frontpaged diary).  It is also emerging as the closest thing to a united position on the Iraq War among Democrats.  Just this evening, for example, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) was on Hardball peddling this line.  Explanation 2 shares Explanation 1’s corollary:  once the Democrats are back in power, they’ll be able to change things in Iraq, and their true, presumably antiwars colors will emerge (just don’t say this too loudly before November 2006….or perhaps November 2008).

But there’s something distinctly fishy about Explanation 2.  After all, insofar as the Democrats — out of power in the White House and on Capitol Hill —  are incapable of doing anything about Iraq, they are equally incapable of doing anything about minimum wage, healthcare reform, abortion rights, campaign finance, the budget deficit, tax cuts, and any other issue you can name.  Yet nobody would dream of suggesting that the party shouldn’t offer clear alternatives on these, and many other, critical issues facing the nation. The very notion would be absurd. Who would vote for a party that doesn’t put forward clear positions? How would Democrats, once elected have a mandate for change?  And why would voters be attracted to a party that made a strategy out of foregrounding its powerlessness?

And the supposedly clever politics of the Democrats’ silence seems already to be failing. A recent poll shows that only 30% of the public believes that Dems are criticizing the administration because they want to improve the situation in Iraq.  Over 50% of those surveyed believe that Dems are only criticizing Bush’s Iraq policy for partisan advantage. Until the Democrats actually come out against this war, the majority has a point.

Explanation 3:  the Democratic Party is Deeply Divided on Iraq, With a Majority of Congressional and Senate Democrats Still Deeply in Favor of the War
You don’t hear this one much around these parts, but it has the distinct advantage of having a lot of empirical evidence on its side.  Leading Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are openly pro-war.  After Congressman Murtha proposed the text for a withdrawal resolution, news reports indicated that only about seventy House Democrats (roughly 1/3 of the House Caucus) backed Murtha’s measure (luckily for the Dems, the GOP instead introduced a farcical version of their own, which managed to unite Congressional Democrats in opposition.  And just today, according to Roll Call, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid essentially told his party to just STFU about Iraq, because of “increasing concerns both within the Democratic Caucus and the minds of the public that the ongoing conflict has caused deep intra-party divisions” (of course if there weren’t deep divisions, the obvious response to these concerns would be to clearly, publicly state the party’s position on Iraq).  Not surprisingly, a frontpaged dKos diary has hailed Reid’s move as “smart strategy and painfully obvious.”

In short, I believe the Democrats have no clear Iraq policy because of three factors.  First, the party leadership is deeply divided over the war.  Secondly, the dominant view among those leaders is still in favor of the conflict.  Finally, because the grassroots of the party is solidly against the war, just shutting up and hoping the issue will go away becomes the only viable option for party leaders…not because it makes for clever general election strategy, but because it’s the only way to forestall a long overdue progressive revolt against the party’s leadership, especially in the area of foreign and military policy.

And from the perspective of voters who believe that this war is a mistake, here’s the bottom line: so long as the Democrats refuse to embrace a policy of withdrawal from Iraq, electing Democrats will not bring this war to a close.  

Slowly but surely, mainstream progressives are coming to the realization that simply supporting Democrats will not bring this war any closer to its conclusion.  For example, The Nation, usually a reliably Democratic organ, recently proclaimed that “We will not support any candidate for national office who does not make a speedy end to the war in Iraq a major issue of his or her campaign. We urge all voters to join us in adopting this position.” But how far will The Nation go in backing these words with actions.  Will they be willing to back antiwar challengers (in the primary and the general election) to pro-war Democrats?

I believe that it is essential for progressive voters to put country before party, and to refuse to let the Democrats quietly support this war by putting it on the political backburner.  We must work in 2006 and 2008, to elect anti-war, pro-withdrawal candidates.  And that will mean actively recruiting and supporting anti-war challengers in districts and states in which the Democratic leadership will be trying hard to duck the issue of the war entirely.

One final thought:  the political ideas that led – and lead – Iraq War supporters to favor this conflict also lead them to favor future wars against countries like Iran and Syria. The only way to prevent such future conflicts is to move American policy in a different direction. This war and others like it will not go away by themselves, no matter how FUBAR Iraq becomes.  Does the emerging majority of Americans who oppose this war have the will to fight to bring about withdrawal from Iraq, or will we be blinded by narrow partisanship into tacitly endorsing this bipartisan war by electing politicians who will support it and future, similar conflicts?

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