Can Hill Democrats Seize on Iraq, GOP Woes?

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Democrats are having their own problems sending a consistent message on war goals... and that affects their ability to take advantage of Republican political problems.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And joining us now is NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: For all the president's problems with Iraq, the Democrats seem to have some trouble of their own with this war.

ROBERTS: Well, they seem to be about where the Iraqis are, according to that poll: the division about what to do and when to do it. But you had the chairman of the party, Howard Dean, saying that there couldn't be victory in Iraq. He's now back-tracked from that. John Murtha, a prominent hawk in the House, and now the minority leader of the House, Nancy Pelosi, calling for a pullout of the troops. Those statements have prompted a Republican ad that's running on the Internet saying the Democrats are for retreat and defeat, which is playing into the worst fears of a lot of Democrats who worry about being painted as a party that is soft on defense. Joe Lieberman, a senator from Connecticut, has been very much on the side of the administration on this, and that's angered a lot of Democrats as well.

Look, others are trying to find some sort of middle ground, and they're saying, `Well, we can't pull out now, but let's set some sort of goals. Let's look at the Constitution. Let's look at the elections next year,' things that they can point to that say, `If we--if it hasn't worked by then, then we should get out.'

Now all eyes are, of course, on Hillary Clinton, who is considered the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. She, of course, voted for the war, has been somewhat hawkish on the war, but she has, like most Democrats, been very critical of the conduct--the administration's conduct of the war. But she has a real problem here, which is that the Democratic base represented by Howard Dean is getting more and more and more anti-war. And it's a question of whether she can stay in the middle or anybody who wants to be the Democratic nominee can stay in the middle. The hope, of course, is that the situation improves in Iraq enough by 2008 or that the troops are out so that it becomes moot. But meanwhile, it's prompted someone to get into the race--primary against her for the New York Senate, not a real serious opponent, but an opponent.

MONTAGNE: And, Cokie, how are the Democratic arguments about Iraq playing out on Capitol Hill when it comes to legislation?

ROBERTS: Well, there's no specific war legislation on Capitol Hill, but you see it in a variety of other pieces of legislation that are coming before the Congress right now. The renewal of the Patriot Act is in some ways a surrogate argument about the war. The treatment of prisoners, which is attached to the military bill, is in some ways a discussion about the war. And even on the still pending domestic budget and tax cuts which you have going there is Democrats essentially saying, `We're spending too much on the war and not enough on domestic programs.' So that you have a war debate going on in a whole variety of ways on Capitol Hill.

MONTAGNE: Now this, of course, isn't the first time a war has split political parties on Capitol Hill, and you know, just briefly, over the weekend we learned of the death of former Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy, and he spearheaded the anti-war effort in 1968.

ROBERTS: Right. I remember the student meeting when the `Dump Johnson' movement got started, and it was Gene McCarthy who was willing to take on President Johnson over the war when no one else would. And he got enough votes in the New Hampshire primary that President Johnson stunned everybody by pulling out and then, of course, Senator Kennedy got in. He was then assassinated. The party was split in ways that--in some ways it's never recovered from. It's in some ways the debate that's still going on about this war. But Gene McCarthy himself, the man, will certainly be missed. He was a wit, he was an intellectual, he was a poet, and he had an ability to look at politics and himself with a wonderful wry sense of humor. We don't see anything like that in politics today.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

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