Exclusive: Despite Its Unpopularity, Iraq War Hurts Democrats, Helps GOP in Congress

As each house of Congress began its own Iraq War debate, the unpopular war continued to have the curious effect of hurting those it should help, and helping those it should hurt. Democrats may be accused of wanting to "cut and run" in Iraq, but the fact is that they "broke and ran" in the debate.

The Republican advantage here comes with the recent death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the discovery of intelligence information that suggests al Qaeda feels it is losing in Iraq.

On the Senate side, Democrats blundered themselves into a minefield, with Republicans bringing up the actual resolution as proposed by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2006. This was a resolution that some in the press had laughably said would put pressure on Republicans, but Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seized the opportunity by proposing it himself. The Doves were slaughtered in a 93-to-6 tabling vote, with Kerry among the six. Inexplicably, the Democrats pressed for more punishment by discussing resolutions with later withdrawal dates — equally unhelpful to them. The vote benefits Kerry in his quest for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, but it hurts the caucus with its base.

On the House side, things were scarcely better, as Republicans were the ones bringing their own resolution. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) took center stage, again denouncing the Republicans’ "stay the course" war resolution as a political stunt. (More on Murtha below.) The problem: Forty-two of Murtha’s fellow Democrats ended up supporting the "political stunt," including almost every member facing a difficult re-election this year, such as Representatives Jim Marshall (D-Ga.), John Barrow (D-Ga.), Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), Melissa Bean (D-Ill.), John Spratt (D-S.C.). This House vote turned into a rout — a real embarrassment for the Democrats — due to the large number of defectors.

Once again at center stage is Democrats’ timidity over Iraq, which one would expect to be as good an election issue as they could ever invent against the Republicans and President Bush. The Iraq War is apparently unpopular and Americans supposedly want the troops to come home — yet Democrats feel so little confidence that this will translate into election victories that they cannot be persuaded to adopt a consistent anti-war position. Even as Democrats are too divided to embrace the long end of the stick, Republicans are eager and united to embrace the short end. Do they believe that weariness with the war is as shallow as support for it once was — that just as it waxed and has now waned, support for the campaign in Iraq could wax with sufficient success? Or that the bad feeling about the war is not strongly felt?

Murtha’s role in this drama continues to smack of opportunism, particularly since his announcement of candidacy for majority leader. His suggestion on NBC’s "Meet the Press" last Sunday that troops could be "redeployed" to Okinawa — about 6,000 nautical miles from the theater’s landing points in Kuwait and Bahrain — became somewhat unrealistic when he asserted, incorrectly, that troops could be brought back quickly if needed. In fact, the transit time alone would be 11 days by boat plus a few days over land for a Marine Expeditionary Unit, and that doesn’t count the desert preparation that would be required for redeployment to the Middle East. Murtha’s answer embarrassed Democratic House members who would not dream of publicly criticizing the 74-year-old war veteran.

Murtha has worked to make himself the hero of the party’s anti-war wing, and as a social conservative, it is something he can especially afford to do. But before November he had kept a low profile ever since being an unindicted co-conspirator in the Abscam investigation 26 years ago, in which he agreed to testify against popular Rep. Frank Thompson (D-N.J.). Of eight members of Congress on videotape being offered bribes by a phony Arab sheik, Murtha was the only one who did not take the cash — but he did express interest in further negotiations while bragging about his political influence. His testimony created lifelong enemies in the Democratic cloakroom.

Today, Murtha wears his Vietnam combat record like a suit of armor, using it to disqualify adversaries who have not tasted combat, which includes the vast majority of Congress.

A significant but little-remarked rebuke of the Bush Administration on the topic of Iraq, meanwhile, came when the Senate unanimously approved of a demand that the war be budgeted for in the normal budget process.