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The Education of Jerry McNerny

windmills2.jpgYesterday, the WaPo published an article about Democrats softening on Iraq under the title “Senator Calls for Maliki’s Ouster.” As part of that article they quoted statements made by Rep. Jerry McNerney after his trip to Iraq at the end of July:

That followed comments by Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) suggesting that his trip to Iraq made him more flexible in his search for a bipartisan accord on the future U.S. role in the conflict. “If anything, I’m more willing to work to find a way forward,” he told reporters late last month.

Since July 30, McNerney had been facing increasing blowback from his supporters over his statements. Yesterday, he responded with an email and post at his campaign blog, supposedly clarifying his position on Iraq. He even put up his clarification as a diary on Daily Kos:

In September, Congress will be participating in perhaps the most critical discussion of this conflict since it began in 2003. My campaign web site has been receiving increasing amounts of email from concerned citizens curious about my stance on the war. So, as we approach this pivotal debate, I want to clearly and unequivocally express to you where I stand on the question of executing a responsible redeployment from Iraq:

I am firmly in favor of withdrawing troops on a timeline that includes both a definite start date and a definite end date (“date certain”) and uses clearly-defined benchmarks. I am not in favor of an “open-ended” timeline for withdrawal, as some members of Congress have proposed recently.

As many foreign policy experts agree, setting a date certain for withdrawal is fundamental to forcing George W. Bush to bring our troops home from Iraq and ensuring the Iraqis step up and defend their own country. That’s why — even as I consider all proposals as a matter of due diligence — I am standing strong on setting a definite redeployment end date (as an example, I recently voted for the “Responsible Redeployment from Iraq Act” to safely draw down our troops over the course of nine months).

Many of the folks at DKos reserved judgment, saying they wanted to see a correction of his comments as reported in the WaPo. McNerney sent his formal clarification to the reporter at the WaPo, and then he got on the phone to explain exactly where he stands on the issue. Uh-oh. Unfortunately, the clarification he gave in today’s WaPo article, entitled “Democrats Refocus Message on Iraq After Military Gains”, only muddied the waters further: (emphasis added)

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), who made waves when he returned from Iraq by saying he was willing to be more flexible on troop withdrawal timelines, issued a statement to constituents “setting the record straight.”

“I am firmly in favor of withdrawing troops on a timeline that includes both a definite start date and a definite end date,” he wrote on his Web site.

But in an interview yesterday, McNerney made clear his views have shifted since returning from Iraq. He said Democrats should be willing to negotiate with the generals in Iraq over just how much more time they might need. And, he said, Democrats should move beyond their confrontational approach, away from tough-minded, partisan withdrawal resolutions, to be more conciliatory with Republicans who might also be looking for a way out of the war.

“We should sit down with Republicans, see what would be acceptable to them to end the war and present it to the president, start negotiating from the beginning,” he said, adding, “I don’t know what the [Democratic] leadership is thinking. Sometimes they’ve done things that are beyond me.”

Although his statements appear completely contradictory, I suspect that in his mind they function as two parts of a whole. He honestly believes that he can somehow find a “third way” (I know, I know) to break the stalemate between the two parties to lead to a “responsible” timeline for withdrawal. McNerney has made a basic rookie mistake by thinking unstrategically.

I believe that his motives are pure (if a little egotistical), but his understanding of the political dynamics at play is fundamentally flawed. While he would genuinely like to broker some sort of dramatic breakthrough — an outside-the-box solution, if you will — in the logjam over Iraq that has been created by Democratic/Republican party politics, his approach is overly naïve. He needs to understand that what he has done is merely an example of Democratic triangulation at its worst. By straying from the position staked out by the Democratic leadership (and calling them out on it, no less!), he has unwittingly helped move the Overton window rightward at a critical juncture in the Iraq debate. However noble his intentions may have been, McNerney’s actions have served to prolong our stay in Iraq by giving cover to the Bush apologists. And he needs to be called out on that by both his supporters and by the House leadership.

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