Senator John Kerry found himself on familiar ground when he talked about Iraq in a speech on Wednesday: out of step with much of his own party. Once again, Republicans and even some Democrats said, Mr. Kerry appeared on the verge of squabbling with the antiwar base of his party.Though unions and a number of liberal organizations may continue to censor themselves and mute their criticisms of Kerry, allowing him to define the conservative political agenda against their own best interests, even the most cautious of all anti-war coalitions in the United States is beginning to make noises, in response to the majority of Democrats who are now saying that Washington "should withdraw its military forces from Iraq . . . even if that means civil order is not restored there" (emphasis added):
But that has not happened, even in a week in which Mr. Kerry rejected calls from the antiwar Democrats to set a deadline for the withdrawal of United States troops from Iraq. . . .
This turn of events is the latest and what some Democrats describe as the most compelling evidence that the fractious left wing of the Democratic Party is muting itself in this election. . . .
"Kerry has less of a problem on the left in the Democratic Party than any Democratic candidate in my memory, which goes back to Kennedy," said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, referring to John F. Kennedy. "The proof of that is I am less busy this presidential campaign than other ones. I'm not being sent out to calm down the left." . . .
The muted criticism of Mr. Kerry on the war, which he voted for, is the most striking example of an unusual display of pragmatism by the Democratic left. Democrats said they were also holding back criticism or delaying demands until after Election Day on issues ranging from gay marriage to trade policy to Mr. Kerry's relatively modest health care proposal and support for a balanced budget amendment. . . .
Mr. Nader said he could not understand why unions, antiwar groups and other traditional Democratic constituencies were signing on with Mr. Kerry without insisting they get something in return. And he criticized Mr. Kerry for not making real concessions to the antiwar crowd.
"He's listening to Shrum," said Mr. Nader, referring to Mr. Kerry's senior political adviser, Bob Shrum. "He's listening to all the cautious advisers. They are saying don't cater to these antiwar people, they have nowhere to go. They are going to vote for you. You know the old game." ("Why the Democrats' Left Wing Is Muted," May 29, 2004)
Recent polls have shown rising support among Democrats for withdrawal. And Win Without War plans a nationwide series of demonstrations in late June to push for a firm date.Win Without War is calling for a date of withdrawal only in the interest of "winning Iraqi backing for maintaining the occupation long enough to build a reliable security force for the country's new government" (Brownstein, May 27, 2004), to be sure, but its campaign, in addition to actions of International ANSWER, United for Peace and Justice (whose national coordinator Leslie Cagan says, "It's outrageous that the so-called opposition party has provided so little opposition. We're concerned that despite slight emphases, the Kerry agenda is basically the same as Bush: a foreign policy based on what's best for big American corporations" [Matthew Wells, "Poles Apart," The Guardian, May 6, 2004]), and other anti-war coalitions and organizations nationwide, may serve to hasten an end to the self-defeating self-censorship of activists to the left of Kerry.
"We are going to be making that case as vigorously as we can to the American people," said Tom Andrews, Win Without War's national director and a former Democratic House member from Maine.
While the liberal coalition veers away from Kerry, Bush over the last several weeks has crowded the Massachusetts senator by executing what many analysts see as a major midcourse correction on Iraq. . . .
"Kerry's position is being eroded," said one top Democratic foreign policy analyst who asked not to be named. "Kerry is in a position where the best he will be able to say is that Bush is finally doing what I said to do all along."
Compounding Kerry's problem, doubts are growing among Democrats to the open-ended commitment in Iraq that he echoes Bush in supporting. In an ABC/Washington Post survey released Monday, 53% of Democrats said the U.S. "should withdraw its military forces from Iraq . . . even if that means civil order is not restored there."
Voices influential in Democratic circles are also promoting withdrawal. In recent articles, James B. Steinberg, the deputy national security advisor under President Clinton, and Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, have said the U.S. should set a "date certain" for the withdrawal of all American troops.
Such a step, they argue, is critical to winning Iraqi backing for maintaining the occupation long enough to build a reliable security force for the country's new government.
The withdrawal idea is certain to receive more attention now that Win Without War, whose members include the influential liberal Internet advocacy group, MoveOn.org, has endorsed it after extensive deliberations.
Andrews, Win Without War's director, said that although the resolution the group will announce today will call for setting a deadline for withdrawal, it will not endorse a specific date.
"To us, the mere presence of an unwelcome occupation force is . . . fueling the insurgencies, and it means our soldiers have become vulnerable targets unable to restore order," he said.
Kerry has said the U.S. could begin withdrawing troops once stability is established in Iraq. Aides say he believes a more specific withdrawal option would be both a policy and political mistake: an invitation to chaos in Iraq and a backlash from swing voters in the U.S. . . .
"What Kerry's doing is stepping out of the line of fire and making the issue George Bush's policy on Iraq," Andrews said. "But clearly the degree to which [he] can be clear, specific and concrete about what . . . steps he can take to get us out of this colossal mess is to the good." (Ronald Brownstein, "Kerry Feels Squeeze on Iraq Policy: While Bush Moves Ever Closer to His Challenger's Ideas, More Democrats Are Calling for a Pullout," Los Angeles Times, May 27, 2004)
Then, if Kerry fails to respond to clamors for withdrawal, the question is whether activists can draw the logical conclusion from their own experience of the nature of the Democratic Party machine.