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October 31, 2009

US Democratic Party Split Over Iraq

by Jim Malone

Opposition Democrats are counting on public disenchantment with the Iraq war to help them make gains in U.S. congressional elections in November. Democrats are divided over what to do about Iraq.

Those divisions were on display in Washington recently as prominent Democrats appeared before a group of liberal Democratic activists to talk about Iraq and other issues.

Among them was Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president, who may run for the White House again two years from now.

Senator Kerry initially voted for the war, but now is among those who favor setting a firm timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

"I believe we need a hard and fast deadline, not an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces, so that we shift responsibility, and demand responsibility from the Iraqis themselves," he said.

The reception was notably more mixed for another likely Democratic presidential contender in 2008, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.

Senator Clinton also voted for the Iraq war, and has been critical of President Bush's handling of the conflict.

But she disagreed with those Democrats who favor a timetable for withdrawal, prompting a number of boos in the liberal audience.

"Nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain," she said. "I do not agree that that is in the best interests of our troops or our country."

President Bush and his Republican supporters have been quick to seize on the Democrats' internal debate.

"There is an interesting debate in the Democratic Party about how quick to pull out of Iraq," he said. "Pulling out of Iraq before we accomplish the mission will make the world a more dangerous place."

Public opinion polls suggest most Democrats oppose the Iraq war, and believe that ousting Saddam Hussein was not worth the cost.

"There are many different positions in the Democratic Party, though I would say that the party overwhelmingly is opposed to the Iraq war, and wants to see a schedule announced of withdrawal," said Larry Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "They differ about how quickly the withdrawal should take place, but, overwhelmingly, they are in favor of a withdrawal."

But even some Democratic strategists concede that the party's divided position on Iraq could be a liability in the November congressional elections.

Jennifer Palmieri worked in the Clinton White House, and is now with the Center for American Progress, a public policy research organization in Washington.

"The problem for Democrats is that, it is true that they have not been able to articulate a national message that breaks through to voters," she said.

Analyst Larry Sabato expects the Democratic debate over Iraq to continue well into the 2008 campaign for president.

"You can't really expect an out of power party to have a unified position," he said. "There is no one to unify them. They will not get unified, until they pick a presidential candidate, and then that nominee will become the public face of the party and the positions of the party."

Iraq is likely to be a prominent issue for both parties in the 2008 presidential race. For the first time since 1952, no sitting president or vice president will be running in 2008, indicating a wide open race for the White House in both major political parties.