When John McCain talks about Iraq, people are often left scratching their head in amazement and confusion. From his comfort with a hundred year occupation, to his claim that al-Qaeda wants to knee-cap his candidacy, to his "gaffes" about an al-Qeada/Iran connection, to his assurances that "the surge is working" (which came just before the latest return to chaos), he is looking more and more like a man utterly detached from reality.
Yet recent polls have shown McCain topping both Clinton and Obama as the candidate voters see as most capable of dealing with the war in Iraq. And it's not even close. Gallup had him favored on Iraq over either Democrat by 14 points. The LA Times had him besting Clinton on the war by 16 points, and Obama by 13 points.
So what the hell is going on here? What accounts for such a major -- and potentially disastrous -- disconnect?
In short, Democratic candidates up and down the ticket are facing a message gap when it comes to Iraq. McCain's rah-rah pitch is very simple and upbeat: "Vote for me and I will win the war." Democrats have a tougher time trying to answer the question: "What are you going to do about Iraq?"
Part of the problem is the unrealized promises of 2006. Dashed hopes often metastasize into cynicism and mistrust. So this time around, voters want to hear more than "I am going to end the war." They want to know how. Specifically. Concretely. In detail.
Enter Darcy Burner, a Democratic challenger who is running for Congress in Washington state. Working with national security experts and retired military generals such as Major Gen. Paul Eaton, the officer in charge of training the Iraqi military immediately after the invasion in 2003 and 2004, she developed "A Responsible Plan to End the War," a comprehensive approach to Iraq based on legislation already introduced in Congress.
The 20-page plan (which you can read in its entirety here), doesn't just lay out how to end the war -- it also addresses the institutional failures that led to the tragic invasion and occupation of Iraq. This includes rebuilding the U.S. diplomatic apparatus, banning the use of armed military contractors like Blackwater, banning torture, promoting government transparency, and restoring accountability through the checks and balances laid out in the Constitution.
As of today, 45 Democratic challengers have signed on to the plan -- including 41 running for the House and 4 running for the Senate. Among the candidates who helped Burner launch the project are Chellie Pingree, running in Maine's First Congressional District; Donna Edwards, running in Maryland's Fourth Congressional District; Tom Perriello, running in Virginia's Fifth Congressional District; and Eric Massa, running in New York's Twenty-ninth Congressional District.
It's worth noting that this is no collection of "make love, not war" pacifists. Massa is a 24-year Navy veteran. Edwards' father was in the Air Force. Burner's brother served in Iraq. And they are all clear that there are real threats facing America, and that our military needs to stop being distracted -- and depleted -- in Iraq, so it can better address the mounting dangers in Afghanistan and the areas of Pakistan where al-Qaeda has reconstituted itself. So, for national security reasons, they are united in their commitment to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq and begin to repair the damage the war has done to America's standing in the world.
The idea is to band together a group of challengers running on a shared platform who, if elected, will be able to head into Congress armed with a mandate, supported by allies, and wielding a specific legislative agenda designed to end the war. Call it A Contract to Restore America.
It is also an effective way to let voters know that this is a group of Democrats who won't cave in every time the GOP accuses them of cutting-and-running or not supporting the troops, or when the media once again float the "precipitous withdrawal" meme.
It also moves the debate beyond "stay the course vs end the war". As Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan and a backer of the Responsible Plan, puts it: "Bringing our troops home is the first, but not the only step that must be taken to ensure a debacle like Iraq never happens again. This plan addresses the root causes that allowed the Bush administration to lead this country into this mess, and sets us in the right direction."
When President Bush can portray the resurgent violence in Iraq as "a very positive moment" -- one that "shows the progress" made during the surge -- and not be booed off the national stage by the public and the media, it's clear Democrats still have their work cut out for them in closing the message gap on Iraq. The Responsible Plan provides a powerful tool for doing just that.
Check out this video put together by some of the candidates backing the plan: