By DAN K. THOMASSON
While the Republicans are seeking to heal the wounds of divisiveness caused by the immigration issue and the president's falling ratings, Democrats are hard at work trying to convince the nation they can be trusted with national security. It is clearly a theme that will be aired over and over in the coming election as the minority party in Congress tries to regain control of one or both houses lost more than a decade ago.
So far, however, neither party seems to be making much headway as polls show voters turned off of both. The immigration question, perhaps the most important domestic issue in the spring and summer campaign season leading up to the November midterm elections, pits the moderates against the conservatives, the Senate against the House, those looking at the nation's unskilled labor necessities against those who see 12 million illegal aliens as lawbreakers siphoning off taxpayers money for support services they shouldn't have.
Democrats clearly view George Bush's downward spiral of approval as a rare opportunity to take back what they came to believe was their political birthright during 40 years of ruling the House _ if only they can overcome what has been their Achilles heel the last two presidential elections, an impression that they are weak on defense. Having suffered the indignities of impotency, they are pulling out all the stops to bolster their own security image while painting the situation in Iraq as a quagmire from which only they can extricate the nation.
Four of the party's top leaders, including House and Senate Democratic chiefs Nancy Pelosi of California and Harry Reid of Nevada, and two Democratic military experts from the Armed Services Committees of both houses, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, laid out their main mission to reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast Wednesday. The message: The way out of both Iraq and the terrorist dilemma is a rejuvenation of congressional oversight and that can come only by restoring the Democrats to their rightful control. No more rubberstamping the policies of the current president as they charge Republicans have done.
They said nothing about whether rubberstamping might return should the next president be a member of their own party. Nor did they have a better timetable for leaving Iraq than the 2008 predicted by Bush at a press conference recently. In fact, they pretty much reiterated all those things the administration has been saying are necessary to end U.S. military participation with the creation of a lasting democracy over there. These are the illusive three Vs of Iraq policy, military victory, economic victory and political victory, none of which seem near achievement.
The first stage, they all agreed, was something called "redeployment," allowing U.S. troops to move away from hot zones that would be left to the Iraqi military to cool down and control. Infantry troops would be gradually withdrawn while logistical support forces would remain to help the Iraqis. The nation would have to improve economically and there would have to be a viable Iraqi government.
So what's new? This has been the goal all along. Reaching it is what has been difficult. Without a stable Iraqi government, any withdrawal would be disastrous. Reid agreed with the 2008 date for total withdrawal "as long as it is in an orderly fashion." Well, good luck to that.
The truth of the matter is that the Democrats have no easy solution to the Iraq problem nor do they offer much of one to the failures of the Department of Homeland Security, which, by the way, they had a leading hand in creating. They talked about the weakness of port security without outlining how that can be fixed. They failed to even discuss the problem of porous borders and immigration problems as they apply to possible terrorist activities. Beyond saying their party has a strong record on defense and in safeguarding the American people, which no one will dispute, they presented little else that would convince voters they have any more of an answer to the current situation than the Republicans.
In any event, they may not need to do much more than stay out of the line of fire if Republicans continue to blast away at each other and the White House over immigration and other issues. The president's naming of a new chief of staff was aimed, among other things, at calming his own forces on Capitol Hill. That's bureaucratic medicine that may be too little too late.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)
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