SENATE Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are demonstrating they are not ready for prime time. This could cloud what now looks like rosy Democratic electoral prospects next year.
Democrats in Congress have sent to the President a supplemental appropriations bill calling for withdrawal of troops from Iraq beginning in October, which they've known he will veto, raising substantially the already high profile of the issue.
It's remarkable that Democrats, as a matter of policy, are siding with America's enemies in time of war. It didn't work so well for them when they did that during the Civil War. And it is questionable political strategy to make a swift retreat from Iraq the centerpiece of their legislative agenda. But more remarkable is how clumsily Democrats are executing the strategy they've chosen.
Most Americans are sorry we went to war in Iraq, and want to bring our troops home as soon as reasonably possible. Many also (with good reason) question the competence of the Bush Administration. This should give Democrats a substantial advantage in the debate on Iraq policy. But Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Reid are shifting the focus of that debate from Mr. Bush's shortcomings to the integrity, competence, even the loyalty of the Democrats.
"If I were George Bush right about now, I'd wrap my arms around Harry Reid and give him a great big kiss on the cheek," said Web logger Rick Moran. "And I might even consider sending Speaker Pelosi a dozen roses."
Ms. Pelosi made a trip to Damascus early this month to meet with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. That trip was panned by the normally Democrat-friendly Washington Post, which said: "Ms. Pelosi's attempt to establish a shadow presidency is not only counterproductive, it is foolish." Ms. Pelosi also expressed a desire to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, until bad press forced a hasty retreat.
This makes absolutely stunning Ms. Pelosi's refusal to meet with Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, when he visited Washington this week. (She did speak with him on the telephone.) She gives the appearance of being eager to meet with America's enemies anytime, anywhere, but she can't find time in her busy schedule to meet with the commander of our troops.
The bumbling Ms. Pelosi seems almost statesmanlike compared to Mr. Reid, who the dean of Washington political columnists, David Broder, described Thursday as "the Democrats' Gonzales." (Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez is being raked over the coals for accepting "complete responsibility" for the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, while professing ignorance of the reasons for their dismissal.)
Mr. Broder blasted Mr. Reid's declaration that the war in Iraq is lost, his clumsy efforts to backtrack and the clearly partisan calculations behind his ever shifting positions: "It has been impossible for his own members, let alone the White House, to sort out more than 24 hours at a time what ground he is prepared to defend," Mr. Broder said.
Describing Mr. Reid as "not a man who misses many opportunities to put his foot in his mouth," Mr. Broder said: "Reid's verbal wanderings on the war in Iraq are consequential - not just for his party and the Senate but for the more important question of what happens to U.S. policy in that violent country and to the men and women whose lives are at stake."
Whether the Democrats' strategy on Iraq leads to success at the polls next year depends less on their rhetoric than on what happens in Iraq. A lot has changed in the last few months.
"I've been struck by the degree to which the debate in Washington seems to be lagging behind the reality in Iraq," said military historian Frederick Kagan, one of the surge's godfathers, who has just returned from a visit there.
We won't know until about midsummer whether apparent improvements since the surge began will last, although it's very good news that sectarian killings in Baghdad have plunged and that nearly all the tribes in Anbar province, once an insurgent stronghold, have banded together to fight al-Qaeda.
But when General Petraeus came to Washington to report on these developments, Mr. Reid and Ms. Pelosi essentially stuck their fingers in their ears. Have Democrats invested so much political capital in defeat that good news is as unwelcome to them as news of Sherman's capture of Atlanta was to the Copperhead Democrats in 1864? Is their insistence on precipitous retreat driven by fear we might win?
Jack Kelly is national security writer for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1476.