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Awkward Assignment

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Democrats and Republicans alike will be feeling their way through the next month or two, trying to adjust to this New World Order. Back in control on both sides of the Capitol, Democrats must relearn how to govern -- and not just throw rocks, the primary occupation of the minority.

In their new minority role, Hill Republicans won't have to shoulder any responsibility: They can just throw rocks. And the circumstances of their losses underscore that. Although congressional scandals and the behavior of the Republican majorities certainly contributed to the GOP's loss of power, the war in Iraq was a much larger factor.

More than a few Republicans in Congress think that if President Bush had fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld earlier, they would still be in charge. It doesn't matter whether that assessment is accurate. Believing it makes a significant number of Republican lawmakers less willing to do Bush's bidding, particularly on tough votes.

The Democratic majorities must walk a tightrope. Their base expects decisive action, yet the party must be mindful of those voters who swung to their column in November and put Democrats in control. A not inconsequential number of House Democrats represent districts that have tended to vote Republican in presidential and congressional elections. Although voters in those districts may have been displeased with GOP rule of late, they haven't suddenly become liberals.

If Bush calls for a significant increase in the number of American troops in Iraq, he'll find himself standing on exceedingly thin ice. A December 8-11 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey of 1,006 adults showed that just 23 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of Iraq; 71 percent disapproved.

Pollsters Peter Hart and Bill McInturff also found that 35 percent of the public favored an immediate, phased withdrawal of U.S. troops; 44 percent supported the use of American troops only to train and support Iraqi forces; and just 16 percent supported the continued use of American troops in all aspects of the war.

A Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll conducted December 14-17 asked 775 registered voters which of four Iraq options was closest to their view. The first was that the United States should "send more troops in now and finish the job." The second, "Keep the number of troops the same but find a new strategy to finish the job." Third, "Begin to wind down U.S. involvement and hand the job over to the government in Iraq." Fourth, "Set a timetable to get most U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2008."

The option to "send in more troops," the one that Bush seems most likely to embrace, was supported by 21 percent of all voters (39 percent of Republicans, 18 percent of independents, and 9 percent of Democrats). "Keep the numbers the same but find a new strategy" received the backing of 13 percent (17 percent of Republicans, 15 percent of independents, and 7 percent of Democrats), bringing the total for either increasing troop levels or holding them steady to 34 percent (56 percent of Republicans, 33 percent of independents, and 16 percent of Democrats).

The third choice, to wind down, was by far the most popular -- drawing 36 percent support (25 percent of Republicans, 40 percent of independents, and 43 percent of Democrats). "Set a timetable" was the choice of 24 percent (14 percent of Republicans, 21 percent of independents, and 30 percent of Democrats).

Obviously, the situation is bad for Bush. But it is also awkward for Democrats. Voters expressed displeasure with the war, yet haven't amended the Constitution. The president remains commander-in-chief.

Congressional Democrats and party strategists generally agree among themselves that they should avoid anything that smacks of being unsupportive of U.S. troops, such as cutting off funding for the war. An alternative approach would be to pass legislation putting a ceiling on the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, eliminating Bush's surge option. The White House would inevitably get the Pentagon brass to defend the surge strategy, and Democrats are loath to take on the military.

So Democrats must find some way to be responsive to voters while not taking ownership of Bush's war. That's no easy assignment.

 
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