WASHINGTON—As the anti-war movement arrives in Washington this weekend, many top Democrats are leaving.
Nationally known Democratic war critics, including Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and John Kerry of Massachusetts, won't attend what sponsors say will be a big anti-war rally Saturday in Washington.
The only Democratic officeholders who plan to address the rally are Reps. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and John Conyers of Michigan.
Today's leading Democrats head a party divided over the war, and many leaders are wary of standing with anti-war activists, who represent much of the party's base. The divide between anti-war activists and Democratic leaders underscores a challenge the party faces in the 2006 congressional elections and beyond. Some activists say that Democrats such as Clinton and Kerry who criticize the war but refuse to demand a timetable for withdrawal are effectively supporting the status quo—and may not merit future support.
En route to Washington for the rally, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan protested outside Clinton's New York office. "She knows that the war is a lie, but she is waiting for the right time to say it," Sheehan told about 500 cheering supporters. "You say it or you are losing your job."
Spokesmen for the Democrats who are skipping the anti-war event all said they had schedule conflicts. But some leading anti-war activists aren't buying it.
"There are a lot of people here who are wondering, where are the Democrats?" said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic House member from Maine who's now the national director of Win Without War, one of several groups that are organizing three days of protests against the war in Washington starting Saturday.
"The Democratic Party has an identity crisis on this issue. We need voices. We need leadership," Andrews said. "But fear is driving them."
The rally comes at a time when a growing number of Americans want a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, a proposition that both President Bush and many leading Democrats reject.
A poll this week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of Americans want to keep troops in Iraq until it's stabilized, but the ranks of those who want to set a timetable to withdraw have grown to 57 percent from 49 percent in July. (Evidently some people chose both answers.)
At the same time, a growing number of grassroots Democrats are dissatisfied with their party's leadership in Congress. The percentage of Democrats who are happy with their leaders dropped from 64 percent in May to 49 percent now, the Pew survey found.
Dean, who rallied anti-war activists with his fervent opposition to the war during his 2003-2004 presidential campaign, already was scheduled to spend the weekend meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, spokesman Josh Earnest said.
"His views on the president's handling of the war in Iraq are well documented," Earnest said. The anti-war rally, he said, is "not something the party was involved with."
Kerry planned to be in his home state this weekend, a spokeswoman said. At Brown University on Monday, the senator ripped Bush's conduct of the war, saying the president should admit "countless" mistakes in the war and proclaiming that "real leadership stands up to special interests and sets the course for future generations."
Feingold was scheduled to be out of town, a spokesman said. Feingold is the only national Democrat weighing a 2008 presidential campaign who's endorsed setting a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
Clinton also didn't plan to attend, a spokesman said.
"Our job is to make them pay a price for continuing to support this war," said Bill Dobbs, a spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, another group that's organizing the anti-war weekend in Washington.
Sixty-six members of Congress have formed an "Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus" that wants either immediate withdrawal or a timetable to withdraw. None of the party's congressional leadership and none of the likely candidates for president are members.
Anti-war organizers said they expected 100,000 people Saturday. A rival group plans a rally Sunday in Washington to show support for the war.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.