Behind the Dems' War Strategy

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Brendan Smialowski / Getty

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, flanked by fellow Democrats, discusses a non-binding resolution to oppose President Bush's plan for a troop surge in Iraq.

Led by Nevada's Harry Reid, Senate Democrats are making an effort to galvanize support around a still-unspecified resolution that would, in effect, replace the resolution that authorized George W. Bush to go to war in 2002 with a new measure that sets new limits on the American mission in Iraq. The details of Reid's resolution are fuzzy because the Democratic leadership only just glommed onto this idea last week and the language of the resolution is still being worked out. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said on Sunday that the new measure would set a deadline next year for withdrawal of some U.S. forces — he did not say how many. It would most likely restrict U.S. troops to training, support and counter-terror roles, though that too has to be worked out. Reid is expected to unveil the resolution on Tuesday.

But it's hard to see how this is going to fly.

It's not certain that Reid can come up with wording that will unify his own caucus. And already, even the moderate Republicans who stood with the Democrats two weeks ago on a much milder, non-binding resolution, have signaled their opposition to anything like a rewrite of the authorization of force resolution. "They are grasping at straws," said an aide to a Republican who voted with the Democrats two weeks ago. "My boss will never support it." An aide to a more conservative Senator, who doesn't like what's going on in Iraq but is not willing to oppose the President, was more pointed. "They are all trying to figure out a way to embarrass the President and rally the netroots," he said. "It won't get very far."

The idea to revisit the original war authorization was first proposed by Sen. Edward Kennedy in January and has been bouncing around the Senate chamber for a few weeks, talked up at various points by different Democratic senators. It was ignored chiefly because it had virtually no chance of winning any Republican votes — and that fact hasn't changed.

But as politically flawed as the idea was, it began to look good to Democrats when all the alternatives began to look worse.

Republicans blocked debate on the non-binding resolution, and Democrats overplayed their hand in the House, meanwhile, when Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania threatened to withhold funds for any combat unit destined for Iraq which was undermanned or under-equipped in some way — an indirect Iraq no confidence vote. Republicans seized on this too-clever-by-half gambit, charging the majority with bleeding the troops and shrewdly challenging Democrats to simply cut off all funds if they didn't like the war. That worked. Murtha hasn't been heard from since, though his aides say he may say something in public this week about his next steps.

Even if Republicans are right and the Democrats' tactic is doomed, success may not be Reid's goal. Democrats (and Republicans) across Washington have been buzzing for days about the increasingly lopsided poll ratings on Bush and the war — numbers that have led Democrats to conclude that there is simply no downside to bringing up vote after vote on the war in order to force Republicans to choose which side of Bush and Iraq they are on.

Which means Reid' s goal isn't really to legislate a new direction in Iraq at all. It is simply to get Republicans who are up for reelection in 2008 on the record as many times as is possible as sticking with a President — and a war — that most of the country has lost confidence in.