Democrats Seek Expert Advice on Iraq Message

Posted February 9, 2005 at 6:07pm

Senior House Democrats have consulted leading military experts to help craft a strengthened message on Iraq, hoping to bolster their party’s position on defense issues and move beyond honoring American troops and calling for an exit strategy.

House Democratic leaders are working to develop a more compelling message to convince the public that they support a strong defense and are as capable as, if not superior to, the GOP in protecting Americans at home and abroad. That strategy focuses on moving away from criticizing the Bush administration for a lack of an “exit strategy” and moving toward talking about a need for a “success strategy” in the region, sources said.

The latest effort comes on the heels of elections in Iraq that left many Republicans giddy, and in the wake of calls from several prominent Democrats for an immediate troop withdrawal.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) said Democrats must focus on convincing the public that they are “committed to a strong defense establishment and defeating terrorism.” He said the party would be well served to unify around a stronger message that calls for a “successful resolution” to the conflict in Iraq.

“First I believe, personally, that is a very important national policy, but secondly it is very evident to me that President Bush didn’t win this election on the basis of the success of his programs, but the confidence the American public had that he was committed to defending them and defeating terrorism,” Hoyer said.

Hoyer added that both he and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) “want to see success in Iraq and want to see success for the Iraqi people who have performed so courageously.” He said the leadership will continue to talk about the president’s “failure to employ a strategy” that brings about peace, economic stability and a strong democratic system.

Many House Democrats fear the recent swell of anti-war voices in their Caucus are drowning out their broader message to the electorate that they are pushing for a strong, well-equipped Iraqi military and want success in Iraq. Even though House Democrats differed on entering the war, they now must sing from the same sheet to push for a successful end, they believe.

As part of that, Pelosi has in recent weeks sought advice from military experts including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, former Defense Secretary William Cohen and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

“We know it’s important, we have to do well on national security, the polls have shown that,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “We have to close that gap if were going to compete nationally. We are strong on national security.”

This aide noted that beyond the political benefit to a stronger Democratic message, the party believes “we need to succeed as a country.”

“Bush has not been successful, he has not solved the long-term problems,” the staffer said.

Clark, the one-time Democratic presidential hopeful, spoke to the Caucus at its retreat last weekend, telling Members, “if Democrats do not want to be soft on defense, they can’t adopt a ‘bring home the troops now’ policy.” He suggested Democrats hammer the Bush administration for failing to come up with a plan for success in Iraq, and argue that he owes the American public such a plan.

Clark counseled Democrats to reframe their message to force the White House to articulate a success strategy, rather than simply call for an exit. He also suggested Democrats question Bush’s commitment to funding the troops, reconstructing the country and providing adequate training for Iraqi police and military personnel.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said many Democrats recognize “national security was a key issue in the last election” and that it is critical they speak more loudly about the White House’s mishandling of the Iraqi conflict.

That includes calling more broadly for a success strategy in the region and pursuing vigorous oversight of spending on the war and ensuring troops are fully equipped and protected.

“There needs to be a strong check of this administration and its policies and a strong, independent vision of national security offered by the Democratic Party,” he said.

“People think that by talking about funding the troops and meeting their needs of armor and protection inoculates them from the charge of being soft on terrorism and defense, but it doesn’t,” said another Democratic leadership aide. “It doesn’t inoculate you from the perception that you don’t have an overall vision.

“At the end of the day, what we all want to see is Democrats back in the majority and that’s not going to happen until we present a strong profile on national security.”