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Iraq Debate Challenge to Dem Adviser

By Brent Budowsky
January 8, 2007

Editor's Note: Facing George W. Bush's planned escalation of the Iraq War, Democratic leaders have jettisoned an earlier consultant-driven strategy designed to soft-pedal differences with Bush over the war and focus instead on popular domestic issues.

The plan to duck the war debate had infuriated many rank-and-file Democrats who consider the war both a moral issue and the chief reason the Democrats won control of the House and Senate on Nov. 7. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid finally agreed with that view and began speaking out against Bush's plans and fast-tracking oversight hearings on the war.

Not surprisingly, some Democratic consultants are complaining that their focus-grouped ideas have been disrupted. (See, for instance, the comments of Celinda Lake in this Washington Post article.) In the following guest essay, Democratic political analyst Brent Budowsky challenges Lake to debate how Democrats should treat the Iraq War:

One of the Democratic Party's leading pollsters, consultants and strategists is quoted in the Washington Post as advising Democrats to avoid taking a strong stand against the troop surge and escalation of the war in Iraq.

Ms. Celinda Lake is quoted as follows: "People are not looking to their individual members of Congress to solve the Iraq war". And advising Democrats to focus on domestic issues rather than opposing the escalating war, Ms. Lake is quoted saying this is "the perfect juxtaposition".

It is high time and long overdue that Democrats across America, from the grassroots to the high levels of leadership in Washington, initiate a serious debate about both the honor and soul of the Democratic Party on Iraq, and about the political strategy of a Party that should aspire to lead the nation and be credible on national security issues.

One note of profound optimism. Let's give a standing ovation to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for publicly opposing the troop surge and the escalation of war in Iraq that it represents.

And let's give a standing ovation to candidates such as Jim Webb and Joe Sestak and the many Democrats who campaigned with honor and clarity for dramatic change in the policy.

And a standing ovation to Jack Murtha, Joe Biden, Jay Rockefeller who like Pelosi and Reid have made strong statements of policy and conscience in the early days of the new Congress.

One note of fact: The Democrats took their strongest position of leadership on Iraq in the 2006 election, far stronger than they did, after much advice from the insider class of high-income consultants, in 2002 and 2004.

I will be glad to debate Ms. Lake on the pure politics of the matter, any time, any place, in any medium, on this fact: Democrats won control of both houses of Congress in the election where they took the strongest stand of conscience, and lost obvious opportunities for leadership and control in 2002 and 2004 when their positions ranged from sellout of support for a neoconservative war to weak and incoherent vacillation.

To repeat: weak leadership on Iraq in 2002 and 2004, Democrats lost. Far stronger leadership on Iraq in 2006, Democrats won.

If Ms. Lake believes "people are not looking to their individual members of Congress to solve the Iraq war," one wonders which Democratic voters she has been polling and what election returns she has been reviewing.

Even more important than the politics, I would challenge Ms. Lake to a debate any time, any place, in any medium about what should be the military policy and moral integrity of the Democratic Party when more than 3,000 of our heroic men and women have died in such a tragically unwise war, that some high-income Democratic consultants have had so much trouble advising Democrats to oppose.

Here is my view, which I believe represents the overwhelming majority of Democrats in America and the overwhelming majority of Americans generally and in military families:

It is the moral, patriotic and strategic duty of leaders to take positions of sound military strategy and sound moral integrity on matters of war and peace. It is not worth the life of one American to treat the heroic service of our troops as just a maneuver to determine what is the most convenient political move or the most clever and shrewd "juxtaposition".

The only thing as disrespectful of our people and our democracy as the President using an election where candidates ran on a policy of de-escalation to force feed an escalation, is for Democratic consultants to try to persuade Democrats to stand idly by using the absurd and false rationale that "people are not looking to their individual members of Congress to solve the Iraq war".

Like hell they aren't. That is what this election was about, and it is equally Orwellian, equally wrong, and equally disrespectful whether the outrage of this escalation is proposed by a Republican President or surrendered to by Democratic consultants.

This is exactly the attitude that led Democrats to defeat in 2002 by so unwisely supporting the Iraq war.

This is exactly the attitude that led Democrats to blow an election in 2004 that should have been resoundingly won, by vacillation on first principles and incoherence on military strategy and moral leadership.

This is exactly the strategy that was rejected by so many Democrats in the victorious election of 2006 and fortunately, profoundly, it was the strategy that was rejected by Majority Leader Reid and Speaker Pelosi to their enormous credit last week.

What I would propose Democrats across the Nation do, this is:

First, think about suggesting when you make contributions of your hard-earned money, that this money not be an income transfer from you to high-paid consultants giving the kind of advice that Ms. Lake appeared to be giving in her quotes in the Washington Post.

Second, when consultants such as Ms. Lake appear to be giving this kind of advice, their clients should be scrutinized by average Americans and asked directly whether they are being urged to avoid taking stands of conscience, honor and sound military policy.

They should be asked: Are you paying big money for this advice? Following or rejecting this advice? Do you realize this is not what your voters had in mind on Election Day? On matters of war and peace where the lives of your constituents in service are at risk, are you voting your conscience or your consultant?

I do not know exactly what Ms. Lake advises clients privately, but in my humble opinion, what she was quoted as saying in the Washington Post was repellent, wrong, and embodies the worst threat to the future of the Democratic Party, which is this:

There is a certain class of insider Democrats, who I have battled since 2002 when I first opposed the Iraq war, that views war and peace as issues to be maneuvered, exploited and positioned for political advantage and not as matters of conscience, honor and sound military policy.

Many of you have been in this same battle, believing as I do that war should never be about "juxtapositions" and that elections have meaning and do matter. This is what average Democrats believe, what average Americans believe, what military families believe, what Democratic voters believed in 2006 and what Democratic leaders expressed last week in the Reid-Pelosi letter.

Honorable men and women should make decisions on war and peace, based on high principle and sound military doctrine. It is fine and proper to have honorable disagreements on policy and principle but it is wrong, dead wrong, to treat the lives of our troops and the security of our Nation as the petty cash of small-minded politics.

The people are right, the insider consultants who offer this rotten advice are wrong, and it is high time this issue be debated openly and honestly, because the future of the Democratic party and our country hang in the balance.

Brent Budowsky was an aide to U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen on intelligence issues, and served as Legislative Director to Rep. Bill Alexander when he was Chief Deputy Whip of the House Democratic Leadership. Budowsky can be reached at [email protected].


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