WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Soft-spoken, mild-mannered Senate Majority leader Harry Reid has found himself doing a lot of explaining since he bluntly pronounced President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq lost.
The 67-year-old Democrat from the tiny town of Searchlight in Nevada, who voted in 2002 for the invasion of Iraq, has become Bush’s nemesis in the Senate where he is trying to shepherd legislation bringing most U.S. combat troops home.
It’s an uphill task that requires enormous discipline, but sometimes Reid finds it hard to curb his tongue.
A couple of years ago, when Democrats were fighting to wrest Congress from Bush’s Republicans, Reid told a high school audience Bush was a “loser.” He called the White House and apologized immediately.
Last week after he declared “this war is lost,” Reid ignored a torrent of Republican demands that he apologize or retract his statement. He has, however, not repeated it and did clarify his remark on the Senate floor by saying the war was lost if the nation continued down the president’s path.
“I‘m not some kind of a pacifist,” Reid said on Monday when asked about the comment. But he added: “I‘m not going to be quiet.”
Reid had just delivered a speech in which he dismissed what he called Bush’s “happy talk” and said there was no evidence that the new U.S. strategy of adding thousands of troops to Iraq was succeeding.
Reid said Bush was in “a state of denial” over Iraq and called Vice President Dick Cheney -- who has denounced congressional efforts to end the war a waste of time and damaging to troop morale -- as Bush’s “chief attack dog.”
Analysts are divided on whether Reid has helped or hurt his cause.
“Even though I don’t agree with him, nobody can prove him wrong. The state of knowledge about fighting these kinds of war is not so sophisticated as to prove him wrong,” said Michael O‘Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“I think it’s probably poor judgment” to say now that the war is lost, O‘Hanlon said. “In the next six months we should learn a lot more about whether the surge has a chance, and whether any Plan B is worth contemplating.”
If Reid is trying to win over more Republicans to vote for legislation to stop the war, “he will pick off none” with such comments, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
The Senate has 51 Democrats and 49 Republicans. Only two Republicans backed a recent bill with a timetable to bring troops home, giving Reid far too small a majority in favor to withstand a Bush veto.
But, Sabato added, Reid had probably thrilled the Democratic base with his remarks -- also part of his job as a party leader. “I think 80 to 90 percent of Democrats ... would agree with his comment that the war is lost,” Sabato said.
Reid is generally considered more of a centrist than House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a liberal California Democrat who opposed the war from the start. Together they are seeking a legislative way to force Bush to change policy.
Bush has vowed to veto their latest effort -- attaching a troop withdrawal timetable to a bill funding the war effort -- after it passes both houses, which could happen this week.
Explaining why he has sharpened his criticism of the war, Reid recalled visiting with some gravely wounded soldiers who spoke of their mental as well as physical anguish.
One of them asked him: “How would you feel if your friend was vaporized sitting next to you?” Another who had been good at mathematics, couldn’t even remember her phone number.
Such things “changed my view about the necessity to do something sooner rather than later,” Reid said.