The Democrats' Disarray on Iraq

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Michigan's Carl Levin and Rhode Island's Jack Reed have spent much of this month in a Washington version of hell. The two reigning Democratic policy wonks on defense issues led a series of meetings with seven other Senate Democrats in search of a unified plan to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Two of the participants were Harry Reid of Nevada and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democrat's leaders in the Senate. The other five are all eyeing a run for President in 2008. Getting Democrats to agree on anything to do with Iraq these days is hard enough. Getting Presidential competitors to do it? Not likely.

"It was a freewheeling discussion," Reed says, tongue in cheek. The would-be White House contenders — Hillary Clinton of New York, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware — cover the policy spectrum from staying the course to immediate withdrawal. Said one participant in the discussions: "This truly was a herding cats situation." And the result, predictably enough, was failure.

Still, the Democrats made an effort at agreement. Behind the scenes, a compromise was proposed in an effort to satisfy three camps: Kerry and Feingold, who wanted a deadline of Dec. 31, 2006, for combat troops out of Iraq; Dodd and others who were willing to accept Dec. 31, 2007; and a third group, including Clinton, who wanted no fixed dates for final withdrawal. The leaders suggested a general deadline of midyear 2007 for the combat troops to come out. Those resisting any deadline said they could live with such a general target, but the Kerry camp said being vague would be worse than saying nothing at all.

That too was an option, of course. The Democrats might have been safer just staying away from an issue that is hurting Republicans plenty without their help. But the Democrats have decided they need to carve out a defensible position on Iraq going into mid-term elections this fall — which is why Reid of Nevada convened the meetings to begin with.

In the end, Senate Democrats wound up with two positions. Kerry and Feingold are introducing an amendment that would call for withdrawal of all combat troops by this time next year. The other camp is coalescing around a Levin-Reed amendment that calls for starting a "phased redeployment" this year that will continue at a pace set by the commanders on the ground.

Republicans are enjoying the Democratic disarray. Majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, echoing the flag-waving rhetoric of Karl Rove and others, said the Levin-Reed amendment "effectively calls on the United States to cut and run from Iraq." The office of Texas Senator John Cornyn gleefully pointed out contradictions in the statements of those supporting the Reed-Levin plan. Dianne Feinstein, an amendment co-sponsor, said on Sunday, "I think it's time to set some timetables." Levin, at a press conference a day later, asserted, "Our amendment does not establish a timetable for redeployment."

But if Reed and Levin tied themselves up in policy knots with their amendment, at least they can say they didn't do it in the service of their own Presidential ambitions. In a phone conversation Monday after rolling out the amendment, Reed called the impulse to run contagious and said he had been "inoculated." Levin, on his way to his Ford Explorer in the Capitol parking, joked that his past decisions not to run for President had been met with cheers. He told TIME he and Reed would not be accepting any Presidential contenders as co-sponsors for their amendment, in the hope of depoliticizing the document. That will be difficult.