Washington It has taken a long time, but the Democrats finally have come close to defining a sensible common ground on the issue of Iraq.
They were badly divided from the opening debate on the decision to go to war, when House Democrats opposed President Bush's request, 126-81, while Senate Democrats supported it, 29-21. In last year's campaign, the incoherence of the opposition party was capsulized in Sen. John Kerry's notorious comment that "I actually voted for the $87 billion" to fund ongoing military operations "before I voted against it."
Lacking any consensus and without any mechanism for resolving their internal debate, individual Democrats have been offering a jumble of views, even as the public displayed increasing doubts about administration policy.
The freelancing continues. Just this month, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the senior Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee, captured headlines and triggered an emotional House debate by declaring that U.S. troops in Iraq were nothing but a target for terrorists and should be withdrawn from the country.
Murtha, a Marine combat veteran of Korea and Vietnam, is a man who relies on his gut-level instincts. His was an emotional protest delivered on behalf of the wounded men and women he visits regularly at Walter Reed, not a carefully reasoned analysis of the strategic consequences of leaving Iraq to a factional struggle of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. It was not a position his party could - or would - embrace.
But the outlines of such a position did emerge last week in speeches by two respected Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden of Delaware and Barack Obama of Illinois. That they reached almost the same conclusion from opposite sides of the intra-party debate - Biden an early and consistent supporter of the U.S. intervention against Saddam Hussein, and Obama an equally confirmed skeptic about the invasion - adds to the significance of their statements.
Biden, the committee's senior Democrat, said in New York that it is time for the U.S. to scale back its ambitions in Iraq and reduce its troop commitment as it shifts security responsibilities to Iraqi forces. The next day, Obama, a freshman member of the committee, made many of the same points in Chicago.
Both said that an immediate or precipitous American withdrawal is out of the question, because, as Obama put it, "having waged a war that has unleashed daily carnage and uncertainty in Iraq, we have to manage our exit in a responsible way - with the hope of leaving a stable foundation for the future, but at the very least taking care not to plunge the country into an even deeper and perhaps irreparable crisis."
They both envisage the gradual drawdown of U.S. forces through 2006, with Biden more willing than Obama to suggest a specific time line for that process.
What must happen to make it possible, they agree, is a significant acceleration in the training of Iraqi security forces and in the civil reconstruction projects needed to give Iraqis a sense of hope for their future - both of which will require a change in priorities and an improvement in operations by the American forces.
Both senators express hope that next month's election of a permanent government will help speed the reconciliation of the Sunnis to the plans of the Shiites and the Kurds - but acknowledge that the critical decisions in this regard must be made by the Iraqis themselves.
The policy outlined in the two speeches is the same policy that Democrats put forward in a Senate resolution earlier this month - one which, with minor modifications, was embraced by senior Republicans such as John Warner of Virginia and overwhelmingly approved.
Not only have Democrats found their voice, they may well have pointed the administration and the country toward a realistic and modestly hopeful course on Iraq.
¢ Hugh Sidey of Time magazine, one of the great White House reporters of his generation, died last week while on vacation in Paris. Sidey revered the presidency and was fascinated by the men who occupied the office from John Kennedy through the two George Bushes, exploring their character in shrewd and sensitive essays for his magazine and in several books.
The product of an Iowa newspaper family, Sidey was proud of his Midwest roots - and scornful of elitists who looked down on our section of the country. He loved to tell the story of his first interview with McGeorge Bundy, the former Harvard dean who became Kennedy's national security adviser. "He asked me, 'Where'd you go to school, Sidey?,"' Hugh would say, "and when I replied, 'Iowa State,' he said, 'That's too bad."' And then we would laugh at the snobbism.