Americans are looking for alternatives on Iraq

Everyone knows that scandals, hurricanes, energy prices and Iraq have Republicans worried and Democrats growing confident about the 2006 elections. But it is no lead-pipe cinch that we’re going to see a change of leadership in the Congress, especially in the House. Depending on whose math you like there are only 50 congressional seats, give or take that are truly competitive. That number could creep to 60 or above if the public still has the sour view of Congress in November ’06 that it does now. But Democrats are not going to win enough of those seats to become the majority party simply by complaining about corruption and cronyism.

Everyone knows that scandals, hurricanes, energy prices and Iraq have Republicans worried and Democrats growing confident about the 2006 elections. But it is no lead-pipe cinch that we’re going to see a change of leadership in the Congress, especially in the House. Depending on whose math you like there are only 50 congressional seats, give or take that are truly competitive. That number could creep to 60 or above if the public still has the sour view of Congress in November ’06 that it does now. But Democrats are not going to win enough of those seats to become the majority party simply by complaining about corruption and cronyism.

We’ve written in this column before about the need for Democrats to fashion a coherent message that deals with kitchen-table issues like healthcare, retirement security, energy prices and leaders we can trust. They say they’re working on that. Various Democrat study groups are closeted around Washington trying to come up with a simple, coherent message that offers voters hope, not just criticism.

No single issue is more important or more challenging to Democrats than the war in Iraq? America got the message before political leaders did: “This war was a mistake, and we have to figure out how to get out of it.” The answer is not just the president is doing a bad job of running the war. Voter response to candidates selling that line will be “… yeah … so what are you going to do different?” Unless Democrat candidates have an answer to that question they won’t have the credibility to become the majority.

Democrats are flailing around for an answer to the question. They are, for the most part, having a difficult time finding it because they are relying too much on polls. Now, I’m a great believer in polling. My firm takes pride in saying our recommendations and messages are research-driven. But research can only take you so far. All the polls I’ve seen make it pretty clear the American people don’t have an Iraq solution either. Well, it is not their job to have one. That’s why we elect people to public office and then, hopefully, go about the business of making a living and raising a family.

To expect to find a solution to Iraq by reading the tea leaves of a dozen polls is exactly the overly cautious pulse-taking that trapped most of the Democratic presidential candidates into voting for the war in the first place and then winding up trying to run against it. Now we have most of the party’s leaders milling around a buffet of partial solutions. Most of those are a mix of “we have to get out but we can’t pull the troops or set a deadline now.” That is not the answer America is looking for.

I’m reminded of the old admonition to “lead, follow or get out of the way.” Americans both want and deserve leadership on this issue. If we were misled into a badly run war someone needs to have the guts and the vision to lead us out. That’s what I’m getting from the polls.

Interestingly, the most dramatic proposal comes from Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter — not exactly the administration known for foreign policy brilliance. As I understand Brzezinski’s proposal, it is that we “bite the bullet,” admit we made a mistake and withdraw troops as soon as possible, certainly by the end of 2006. As quoted in The Washington Post this week, he says, “We have to face the fact that the war is not going well and is costing us too much, not only in blood and money but also in the U.S. position in the world, discrediting our legitimacy, credibility and morality even.”

Brzezinski would leave troops in the region but start to make clear now that we are leaving, don’t want to govern Iraq and are actually a magnet for terrorism. While not going quite so far, former Defense Secretary Bill Perry does not “believe that what we’re doing now will lead to progress in six to 12 months.”

I’m not going to hold myself out as a foreign policy expert, but I do know that to build a compelling message you sometimes have to start with a risky proposition. That is called leadership, and it what the American people want now. Relying on polls today to predict what will create a Democratic majority in a year is a fool’s errand. Opinions will change. Those who lead that change deserve to lead the country.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.
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bgoddard@thehill.com