Democrats and the war

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JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: BUSH’S ‘FAVOURITE DEMOCRAT’

When the congregation at the Prayer Tabernacle Church of Love in Bridgeport, Connecticut, sang “Guide My Feet”, an African-American spiritual, on Sunday morning, Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic senator from the state, joined right along, standing in the fourth row and swaying with the crowd.

“Guide my feet while I run this race,” they sang over and over, the music made full by a keyboard, drum kit and electric guitar. “Guide my feet while I run this race, for I don’t want to run this race in vain.”

Mr Lieberman took the hymn seriously. His party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2000, Mr Lieberman now finds himself in what he calls the fight of his political life, facing a surprisingly strong challenge – from a fellow Democrat. Just two weeks before the primary election, it has also become a national fight about the future of the Democratic party.

His opponent, Ned Lamont, a wealthy cable television executive, accuses Mr Lieberman of being too close to President George W. Bush and is especially critical of his decision to back the war in Iraq. While Mr Lieberman still unabashedly supports the war, Mr Lamont has made his opposition part of his introduction: “I’m the candidate who thinks we ought to bring the troops home from Iraq right away.”

A kiss Mr Bush appeared to give the three-term senator after the 2005 State of the Union address has become the strongest image of the campaign, depicted on a papier-mâché float that shows up at Mr Lieberman’s events and emblazoned on buttons that Mr Lamont’s supporters distribute, over the words “Bush’s Favourite ‘Democrat’ ”.

“I think it’s time for somebody to stand up to George Bush and his agenda and say, ‘This is wrong and we can do better’,” Mr Lamont said under a white tent at a backyard fundraiser for a support programme for women with cancer. “It is time for Democrats to stand up and say what we’re for, be proud of what we’re for.”

A Quinnipiac poll last week found that Mr Lamont had a slim lead over Mr Lieberman, who has said he will run as an independent in November if he loses the August 8 primary, creating a three-way race with a weak Republican candidate.

The close race has caught Mr Lieberman and his campaign off-guard. Some party activists who support him acknowledge that his national profile may have distracted him from issues at home. This week they called in the heavy guns, bringing in former president Bill Clinton for a campaign rally. Mr Clinton acknowledged Democrats’ disagreements on Iraq but stressed Mr Lieberman’s long record on other fronts, including the environment and education.

The two men have a long and sometimes complicated history. They met in 1970 when, as a student at Yale law school, Mr Clinton worked on Mr Lieberman’s state senate campaign. When Mr Clinton was president, Mr Lieberman spoke out on the US Senate floor, criticising his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern. His selection as Al Gore’s running mate was in part an attempt to distance the campaign from Mr Clinton.

That a political novice such as Mr Lamont could pose such a threat to Mr Lieberman – the first Jewish candidate on a national ticket and a long-time fixture in the state – is explained by a combination of forces, including a deepening anti-war sentiment, longtime discontent with Mr Lieberman among liberals in the state, an anti-incumbent mood among voters, and a push from liberal bloggers who have made Mr Lamont the front man in their battle to reassert a progressive Democratic party agenda.

Liberals are encouraged by Mr Lamont’s calls for universal healthcare, improved education and protecting jobs in the state.

“If Ned Lamont wins, not only does it shake up the Democratic party, it helps us to support a candidate for the presidency [in 2008] who is much more progressive than many of the ones who have been talking about running,” said Maxine Waters, a member of the House of Representatives from Los Angeles who campaigned with Mr Lamont at the weekend.

But moderates in the party argue that Mr Lieberman’s centrist approach and his strong stance on national security are essential to the Democrats’ success.

“The Democratic party doesn’t need to narrow its appeal,” said Al From, the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council. “We need to broaden it.”

Mr Lieberman is clearly angered by any suggestion from Mr Lamont and his supporters that he is not really a Democrat. “It does hurt,” he said on Monday. “If people question whether I’m a Democrat, the Democratic party is in trouble.”

JOHN MURTHA: FAVOURITE TARGET FOR REPUBLICANS

John Murtha’s journey from backroom Washington operator to leader of the anti-war movement was neither happy nor expected.

But the 74-year-old – who has become a hero to some Democrats and a favourite target for many Republicans – says he has spoken out against the war in Iraq for several reasons.

“I see kids blown apart,” Mr Murtha said last week, describing his weekly visits to military hospitals. “I see the morale changing. I see the attitude changing…I heard [US soldiers] say they had gotten to hate the Iraqis, because they didn’t know who the enemy was.”

He recognised, from his long experience as the top Democrat on the defence appropriations committee in the House of Representatives, that the high cost of operations in Iraq were eating away at the military’s ability to fight other battles, now and in the future. “The army is struggling every day to meet their bills.”

Mr Murtha also studied the situation in Iraq, and said progress in key areas such as employment, oil production, and security was lagging too far behind. “We cannot win this militarily. I decided this over a year ago, but I hesitated to say anything. I waited probably too long.”

A former marine and decorated Vietnam veteran, Mr Murtha has close ties to young enlisted men and senior officers and his call for the speedy withdrawal of US troops from Iraq – first made publicly in November – was especially powerful because it was widely thought to reflect the private beliefs of top generals. He argues that they should be redeployed to other countries in the region, available to return to Iraq if the situation warrants.

Mr Murtha also helped bring to light allegations that US marines murdered 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, a result, he said, of the terrible strain troops were under.

But despite his outspokenness, Democrats remain divided on Iraq. Many are torn between a desire to bring troops home and worries that calls for a prompt withdrawal will subject them to Republican charges that they favour a “cut and run” policy and draw fresh accusations that the party is weak on national security.

Mr Murtha recently began circulating a memo about the costs of the war – “$8bn a month…$11m an hour” – and the many other ways that money could be spent. One example: doubling the community police grants programme for $1.4bn (€1.1bn, £750m) a year, the same the US spends in Iraq in five days.

Mr Murtha voted for the use of force in Iraq in 2002. But he says it is now clear that the US cannot impose stability on Iraq. “To me, the alternative is, let them handle it themselves.”

His conservative, rural Pennsylvania roots, military experience and imposing frame have leant credibility to a movement whose previous leader was Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who set up camp outside President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch last summer.

Since then, as opposition to the war has increased, his national profile has risen steadily. “Usually I can change things by working behind the scenes,” he said, but now he gets stopped in the airport and at Wal-Mart, mostly by people who thank him for speaking out.

He was the star attraction at a New Hampshire fundraiser for local Democrats at the weekend, and, after he made his pitch, the three candidates vying for the party’s nomination for a congressional seat said they all agreed.

His new stature also encouraged him to announce that he would run for Democrat majority leader, the number two spot in the House leadership, if Democrats take control after the November elections. “I think I can help, because I’m more conservative,” Mr Murtha said. “There is an idea that [Democratic] leadership is very liberal and I think I bring some balance.”

His critics would find that hard to swallow. When the Center for National Policy, a Washington think-tank, honoured him last week, a handful of protesters stood outside, holding signs that read, “John-Cut and Run-Murtha” and “Honor their Sacrifice: Complete the Mission”.

At a campaign stop in Iowa last week, Dick Cheney, vice-president, sharply criticised Mr Murtha’s call for the withdrawal of troops. “That’s a bad idea,” he said. “Americans and our Iraqi allies need to know that decisions about troop levels will be driven by conditions on the ground and by the judgments of our military commanders, not artificial timelines set by politicians in Washington.”

But Mr Murtha is not likely to quieten down. “This is a tough job for me,” he said, trying to balance his concerns about the mission with his respect for the troops who are struggling to doing their jobs. “I think so much of them. And I see the hurt in their eyes.”

By Caroline Daniel in Washington

JIM WEBB: NEWLY CONVERTED DEMOCRAT

Jim Webb, newly converted Democrat and a former marine whose slogan is “Born Fighting”, makes a habit of wearing his son’s desert combat boots from Iraq. But he does not want to be labelled as simply the “Iraq war candidate”.

“There are people on the other side who want to pigeonhole me that way: that this is just about Iraq . . . The issue is not Iraq, but where we are around the world,” says the decorated Vietnam war veteran.

Mr Webb, who served as secretary of the navy under Ronald Reagan, is one of about 50 veterans running for Congress as Democrats this year. He shunned 20 years of Republicanism to become the Democrat’s candidate for George Allen’s Senate seat in Virginia. They had their first debate last weekend.

Some analysts have derided this group of former soldiers as “biography candidates”. The “Fighting Dems” are too slick, they say – their campaign boasts of being a “band of brothers” in the “front line of democracy”, ready to re-take “The Hill”.

Yet Democrats have turned to them to overcome a reputation that has haunted them for a generation: of being weak on national security. The Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing to make the November mid-term elections a referendum on that very issue.

Although Mr Webb resists being a single-issue candidate, calling himself “a moderate on social policy and a populist on economic policy”, he concedes that the party “likes the fact I have more credentials on national security”. His office in Arlington, Virginia, exploits that, with a prominent picture from his time in the Marine Corps. “Jim Webb somewhere in a place called Vietnam 1969,” it says, with the caption: “George Allen’s Worst Nightmare?”

Mr Webb’s manner is more pugnacious infantryman than stiff officer. With his red hair, a testament to his Scots-Irish roots, and casual jeans, he looks younger than his 60 years. He is the author of six books, who says he has penned 2m words in his career, but he has never run for office.

With a laugh that is not quite forced, but not quite easy, he says that friends are puzzled by his sudden move into politics and ask him, “What the hell are you doing?” His stock reply is that he is bothered by “the lack of leadership in this country” and by the Iraq war overshadowing the “war on terror”. His primary campaign was endorsed by three of the disaffected retired generals who recently called for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary.

Even so, his position on the Iraq war – while more critical than Mr Allen’s, who remains a Bush loyalist – is not much different from many Republicans’ and clashes with that of some Democrats, notably Senator John Kerry, who has called for an immediate withdrawal of troops. “I don’t think politically it’s the way to go for Congress to set specific dates,” he says.

Behind that rejection lies an uneasy relationship. He would not shake Mr Kerry’s hand for 30 years because of his anti-Vietnam war activism. But in May he welcomed the senator’s endorsement, “to send a message that now is the time to move beyond the Vietnam war”, says a campaign spokeswoman.

Mr Webb, an awkward campaigner who nevertheless defeated a local party activist, Harris Miller, in the primaries despite being outspent three to one, faces a formidable foe in Mr Allen. A tested campaigner with a popular father who coached the Washington Redskins football team, Mr Allen is mulling a presidential run in 2008. Mr Webb’s campaign again lags on funding: just $424,000 in cash to Mr Allen’s $6.6m. His office is parsimoniously reusing old primary leaflets from June for the November campaign.

To win nomination, Mr Webb secured the backing of the twin Democratic kingmakers: the “netroots”, the liberal wing that uses the internet to campaign, which drafted him to help make 2006 the “year of the veteran”; and the national party establishment.

Both groups are hoping his Republican background – he became a Republican in 1977 after President Jimmy Carter pardoned people who avoided the Vietnam war draft, and in 2000 he voted for Mr Allen and Mr Bush – will help woo conservative voters in red-state Virginia, which combines rural conservatism with pockets of urban liberalism.

While not in the top five swing Senate races, Virginia could help Democrats secure the six seats needed to regain a majority in the Senate. A recent Rasmussen poll showed Mr Webb gaining ground to 41 per cent, against Mr Allen’s 51 per cent.

Yet the Democratic war vets’ strategy has backfired before. Mr Kerry, a veteran, lost the presidential election in 2004 to George W. Bush, who avoided the war by serving in the National Guard. And in February Paul Hackett, an Iraq war veteran, pulled out of the race for the US Senate seat in Ohio amid concern from party leaders about his fundraising skills and experience.

“Vets are never the first or second choices or even 10th choices. You want former congressmen or elected officials who have experience in raising money and campaigns,” says Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report. “There is a strong chance not a single Iraq war veteran will get elected on the Democratic side. Allen is not going to get beat.”

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