I see the political debate on Iraq as a politics of contrast proposition. My take is that we can play off a variation of Gingrich's "Had Enough" slogan, wherein the Democrats might need to say nothing more than to repudiate Bush and the Republican's leadership. In this case, the fact of the matter is that we're a minority party, and so without central leadership there can never be 100% unity on an issue as difficult as Iraq. But contrasting our position with President Bush's open ended status-quo commitment seems like an easy win.
The President clearly doesn't have a plan. Or rather, the formulation of "stay the course" is simply another version of having a "secret plan for victory," this time for Iraq instead of Vietnam. Bush knows what the course is, you see, he just can't tell us in any meaningful way. This is why the Democrats have been saying that there is no plan for victory in Iraq. There are no benchmarks, there are no metrics for measuring success, there is only "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." But we've trained over 200,000 Iraqis now, and our goal is only 270,000, so where are our troops standing down? You see, without some metric - say, for every 3 brigades of Iraqis that are trained, one of ours redeploys - there is simply is no real victory possible - only a transparent declaration of victory and hasty retreat by order of the Commander in Chief. Without a clear definition of victory, there can be no victory.
By contrast, there is a clear definition of defeat in Bush's strategy: The withdrawal of troops. If we withdraw troops, Iraq will become a safe haven for terrorists, and therefore, withdrawal is not an option. This, combined with the Secret Plan, is supposed to make the American people support our continued deployment while thinking that we'll get out of there sometime "soonish." That's the way the Republicans always spin it - imminent draw-downs, not putting in troops that had been scheduled, etc - in order to make it seem like our commitment there isn't unending. But, in fact, Bush himself has said that the withdrawal "...will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq."
So what we're looking at is an essentially limitless commitment. Our boys will be over there getting blown up for at least twice as long as they have been already under Bush's so-called plan. Around 53% of the people want us to withdraw troops in under a year, imagine what the polling would be on the real question: "Would you support leaving U.S. troops in Iraq until 2009?" It would be a blow-out.
This is why I think this debate should be an easy one politically. It's not incumbent on us to set a date-certain for withdrawal. All we as Democrats must say is that "The President will have us in Iraq until at least 2009. The Democrats will change course."
The opposition among the Republicans and their noise-machine will be fierce and so we must be fierce in response. A newly unindicted Karl Rove will spew his poison over the debate, and the Republicans will be united with President Bush in supporting unending war and in calling the Democratic position one of "cutting and running," or "surrender and defeat." It is the bitch-slap theory of campaigning (a phrase coined by Marshall?), whereby slapping the ever-loving rhetorical shit out of your opponent accomplishes two things. First, the content of the attack itself casts doubt on your policies and thereby bolsters the attacker's position - in this case equating anything other than "stay the course" with surrender. Secondly, if you don't hit back just as hard it shows that you aren't made of the "right stuff" to be President and protect this country. If you don't have the stones to fight viciously when you're viciously attacked, how will you protect America from the madmen of the world? So when the Republicans call us Democrats cowards, or traitors, or accuse us of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, we've got to all be a bit more like Jack Murtha and come back swinging.
The reasonableness and effectiveness of a message is directly correlated to how many people say it, and how many times it is said. By forcefulness and consistency of response, we will win this debate. It should be possible to herd the cats together on this one. Opposition to Bush's never-ending war and the promise to change course in Iraq is a powerful message.