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The War Among The Democrats

This column was written by Matthew Continetti.
On August 16, Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of the failed vice presidential candidate, sent out an email. She urged recipients to sign an online petition in support of Cindy Sheehan, the bereaved mother of a 24-year-old soldier who was killed in Iraq last year. Since August 6, Sheehan has been camped outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, demanding to meet with the president to discuss American withdrawal from the Middle East. Democrats, Edwards wrote, should support "Cindy's right to be heard." Democrats, she continued, should "listen to Cindy."

Two days after Edwards's email, in an appearance at a "listening session" in Marquette, Wisconsin, Democratic senator Russell Feingold announced his "target date" -- December 31, 2006 -- for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. "I am putting a vision of when this ends on the table in the hope that we can get the focus back on our top priority," Feingold said, "and that is keeping America and the American people safe." Three days later, in an appearance on NBC'sMeet the Press, Feingold offered his analysis of the current political scene: "The Democrats are making the same mistake they made in 2002," he said, "to let the administration intimidate them into not opposing this war."

At first blush, Feingold's attempt at revisionism seems a doozy -- it's well understood, if not universally agreed, that Democrats lost in 2002, and again in 2004, because of the public's perception that they were weak on national security. Besides which: Feingold is himself proof--along with Sheehan, Edwards, and a whole host of others--that no one is being "intimidated" into silence. Quite the opposite, in fact.

And yet Feingold should not be dismissed. He is just the latest sign that the antiwar wing of the Democratic party is resurgent, that the fault line that appeared between the party's hawks and doves in 2002 still has not been bridged, and that a growing divide between leadership and committed supporters threatens to bring the whole Democratic edifice tumbling down.

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Some Democrats, of course, have been adamantly antiwar since the vote to authorize force against Iraq in October 2002. But the terms of the debate within the party are changing. During the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, the central argument was over whether the Iraq war was justified in the first place. Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman both said it was, Howard Dean said it wasn't, and John Kerry said ... well, he said something in between.

Today, though, the central argument is over how soon American forces should leave Iraq, and whether the United States should set a schedule for withdrawal. On one side are former presidential candidate General Wesley Clark ("It would ... be a mistake to pull out now, or to start pulling out or to set a date certain for pulling out") and some of the party's most prominent senators, including minority leader Harry Reid ("A timeline ... only empowers those who don't want us there"), Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Joe Biden ("A deadline for pulling out ... will only encourage our enemies to wait us out"), Hillary Clinton ("I don't think we should be setting a deadline"), Indiana's Evan Bayh ("To cut and run at this juncture would be a terrible mistake"), and Lieberman ("The coalition should not create an arbitrary timetable to withdraw forces from Iraq"). There is also former president Bill Clinton, who is perhaps still the most important politician in the Democratic party, and who as recently as Aug. 11 told CNN that, "whether it was a mistake or not, we are where we are, and we ought to try to make this strategy succeed."

On the other side, there is Feingold, Elizabeth Edwards (and presumably her husband John), Sen. Edward Kennedy ("America's goal should be to complete our military withdrawal as early as possible in 2006"), 122 members of the House Democratic Caucus, former Colorado senator and Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart--and an enormous, angry army of liberal bloggers, pundits, and activists.

Last week, for example, liberal blogger Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in which he argued that mainstream Democrats should "have the courage to break ranks" and support "a gradual, phased withdrawal" with "specified interim goals" and "a hard end-date two years from now. Being the first liberal hawk to seriously propose such a solution would also carry some rewards," Drum went on. "The antiwar left would finally have someone to rally around, and the Bush administration would finally have some serious competition."

The question is whether Democratic leaders should want to be the rallying point for the antiwar left. Sheehan, the movement's standard-bearer, has said that George W. Bush is the "biggest terrorist in the world," that Osama bin Laden is "allegedly" behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and that American troops should withdraw from Afghanistan as well as Iraq. These are commonplace ideas among many members of the "antiwar left." But they are far from the center of American gravity.

"There are no prevailing institutions" in the Democratic party, a prominent centrist told me last week. "So the blogosphere is filling that vacancy." Antiwar bloggers were central not only to Sheehan's Crawford protest, but also to antiwar Iraq veteran Paul Hackett's campaign this summer for an Ohio House seat. Yes, Hackett -- who livened up campaign appearances by calling Bush a "chickenhawk" and a "sonofabitch" -- ended up losing. But he lost by a small margin, 48 to 52 percent, and was the first Democrat in decades to get over 40 percent of the vote in his state's second congressional district. Liberal bloggers, desperate for a win, quickly claimed Hackett's loss as a victory. They want him to run for the Senate in 2006.

The most influential liberal blogger is arguably the Democratic political consultant Markos Moulitsas, who runs Last week, Moulitsas declared open war on the liberal hawks in charge of his party. In a post entitled "The calm before the storm," he wrote that the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that supports the war, is

an aider and abettor of Right-wing smear attacks against Democrats. They make the same arguments, use the same language, and revel in their attacks on those elements of the Democratic party that seem to cause them no small embarrassment.

Two more weeks, folks, before we take them on, head on.

No calls for a truce will be brooked. The DLC has used those pauses in the past to bide their time between offensives. Appeals to party unity will fall on deaf ears . . .

We need to make the DLC radioactive. And we will. With everyone's help, we really can.

Stay tuned.

Moulitsas's threat was greeted with some befuddlement, and more than a few laughs. Charles Johnson, who blogs at, is running a "Daily Kos Master Plan Countdown," and has produced several widely circulated (in blogosphere terms) Photoshopped images of Moulitsas's face superimposed on Dr. Evil's body (see above). There's a sense that the liberal bloggers may be taking themselves too seriously.

But there is also a sense that Moulitsas has been steadily accumulating opposition research on prominent New Democrats, and will make that research available in September. Who knows what that oppo may turn out to be, or whether it will succeed in making the DLC "radioactive." What is certain is that September will likely prove a crucial month for the Democrats.

That's because there will be plenty of opportunities to expose the party's divisions. In September, Congress plans to take up the defense authorization bill, which includes funding for the war, thus providing antiwar politicians with the chance to propose various amendments including, presumably, timetables for withdrawal. In September the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hold a series of hearings on Iraq. Let's see what the Democratic members of the committee, including Biden, Kerry, and Barbara Boxer, have to say. And in September, Cindy Sheehan will likely take part in a war protest in Washington organized by the groups United for Peace and Justice and the International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition. Which Democratic politicians or candidates will appear alongside her?

"If Bush doesn't get his act together, the Democrats benefit without saying anything," a Republican strategist told me last week. Most Democrats understand this. They have been content to let the headlines from Iraq speak for themselves. But that silence has also opened up a space for activists to scream and holler and grab front-page headlines.

It's a perilous moment. If pro-war Democrats do nothing, timetables and target-dates for withdrawal may soon become synonymous with American liberalism. Party leaders may be persuaded to follow Feingold's lead. And the Democrats' transformation into the antiwar party, in a post-9/11 world, will be complete.


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