Dems dilemma

Prominent in Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed’s rebuttal of President Bush’s latest speech on Iraq was the assertion that “Democrats firmly believe that we can, and must, succeed” in the war.

But Reed’s declaration of party unity _ contradicted as recently as this week by national Democratic chairman Howard Dean _ underlined the party’s dilemma as it attempts to articulate an alternative to the president’s policy.

Just as public unease with the war seems to be sapping Bush’s popularity _ and perhaps the political fortunes of the GOP _ the deep and longstanding divisions among Democrats over this war are also in the spotlight.

At least for the moment, attention to those divisions threatens to upstage a telling line of attack on Bush that Reed reprised Wednesday, “What’s the plan?”

Rebutting Bush’s latest speech on the war at the request of the Senate Democratic leadership, Reed reiterated a litany of criticisms that he has compiled during six trips to Iraq since the war began. He charged the administration with poor pre-invasion planning for the inevitable reconstruction of the war-torn nation; insufficient resources devoted to the repair of Iraq’s economy and the creation of its new government; and, now, a lack of detail from the president on what might constitute success in Iraq and how to achieve it.

“Another missed opportunity to be candid with the American public,” Reed tagged Bush’s speech. During a news conference in the Capitol, Reed said, “The American people were eager to hear the president’s plan for the economic reconstruction of Iraq. Instead, we again heard vague generalities.”

But like most Democrats, Reed refused to offer a detailed prescription. And as he renewed his criticism of Bush, he acknowledged that _ unlike a vocal minority of Democrats _ he agrees with the president that the United States must press ahead in Iraq, supporting the new government with U.S. forces, perhaps for years.

By contrast, Dean drew attention to his party’s strong core of antiwar sentiment Monday when he told a Texas radio interviewer: “The idea that we’re going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong.”

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California has also made some pointed antiwar comments. Two weeks ago, Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., a defense-oriented Marine combat veteran and onetime supporter of the war, suddenly spoke out for full withdrawal of U.S. troops within six months. Murtha repeated the call after Bush’s speech Wednesday, saying, “The American people are thirsting for a plan.”

Meanwhile, Reed and a number of other Democrats who opposed the invasion have clung to the view that an early withdrawal would make a bad situation worse and have staunchly opposed deadlines for the removal of U.S. troops.

A few Democrats are much closer to Bush’s view that there has been much progress in Iraq and there remains a path to victory _ despite the setbacks and the strategy shifts that he has begun to acknowledge for the first time.

Bush devoted a passage of his speech to such a Democrat, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and quoted from a recent Lieberman essay: “What a colossal mistake it would be for America’s bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will and, in a famous phrase, to seize defeat from the jaws of victory.”

“The idea that you’re going to build a coherent Democratic alternative to Bush’s policy in Iraq is laughable,” said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “It’s unfortunate from their point of view politically that the story has become, ‘Democrats in disarray.’ ”

Another nonpartisan analyst, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, said Democrats may be missing a chance for short-term political advantage by “stepping over each other” at a time when public scrutiny might otherwise be trained on Bush’s attempts to explain and rally support for his war policy.

But the bigger point, said Ornstein, is that some Democrats _ Reed included _ have played a role in gradually bringing about an administration reassessment of its war effort.

Reed shrugged off the suggestion that there is a political motive for the coordinated statements he and other Democrats have made on the war in recent weeks.

“I’m not worried, frankly, about the 2006 election,” he said when asked about the lack of a unified Democratic message on the war. “I’m worried about getting the policy in Iraq right, not just for 2006 but for the future of the country.”

Bush’s speech, the second of the major addresses he has promised in advance of Iraq’s crucial national elections Dec. 15, was largely devoted to a blueprint for rebuilding Iraq _ an enterprise that many experts consider the indispensable political tool for defeat of the anti-American insurgency.