Last week, I suggested the GOP might be repeating the mistake of the 2006 election by not opposing a war unpopular with the public. This generated some heated email responses, to say the least. Many of the comments paraphrased Richard Viguerie's book, Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause, where Viguerie recommends true conservative voters reject the GOP until the party returns to its senses. (He does not mention how long it might take.)

The reactions make me wonder not just about how Republicans talk about Iraq but also why the discussion differs so much from Democrats' discussions. Ultimately, the thing to watch during the presidential campaign is if the two sides can foster a constructive debate that will lead to policy solutions on Iraq, or if they will let rhetoric continue to doom us to make singular choices?

I looked back at the two debates in New Hampshire last week for clues, fully cognizant of the fact that 60-second answers are insufficient to discuss a critically important topic.

Both sides do agree on one thing -- blame someone else for the problem.

Democrats watch polls addictively, and they obsess on the

anti-Iraq sentiment

expressed in them, and the party continues to perceive the 2006 election victory as a mandate to bring the troops home.

In the debate, the top Democratic candidates pinned the conflict on misguided intentions. For example, Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards posit we got distracted from the real struggle with terrorists in Afghanistan where we need to refocus our attention, while Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) sums it up for them with a simple, "This is George Bush's war."

The GOP, meanwhile, disagrees with this perceived mandate and strongly believes the U.S. cannot afford to "lose" in Iraq. The candidates often repeat different versions of "we fight them over there, so that we don't have to fight them here." Any discussion of ending the occupation of Iraq must be "defeatism."

This raises the question: What is victory in Iraq?

In 2003, we won a conventional war against Saddam Hussein for the second time. But since then, and the infamous aircraft carrier celebration, American troops remain in a quagmire of occupation where troops are sometimes policemen and sometimes soldiers, but always targets. Through fiscal year 2007, the war on terror has reached a $510 billion price tag according to the

Congressional Research Service

.

Perhaps even worse, many find confusing the constantly changing pronouncements on Iraq. President Bush suggested a new scenario last week -- Iraq will be like Korea. He sees U.S. troops occupying Iraq for as many years as it takes to ensure democracy and stability in the region.

This brings us to something candidates on both sides agree on -- the "peace" has been mismanaged in Iraq. Speaking to a woman who had lost her brother in Iraq, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) answered for all of the politicians involved with decision making on Iraq in the second half of the GOP debate:

This war was very badly mismanaged for a long time, and Americans have made great sacrifices, some of which were unnecessary because of this management of the -- mismanagement of this conflict.

Despite the top-line agreement, the visions of the future diverge by party. Democrats argue that we put our army senselessly in danger on a daily basis, our soldiers lack a clear mission in Iraq and no clear exit strategy is in place. The top Democratic candidates have all suggested a troop withdrawal, Iraqi self-responsibility and that the U.S. begin diplomatic work on improving alliances in the region.

The Republicans, excluding Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas), have stuck with President Bush and the latest strategy, and several of the candidates, including Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, rehashed old myths.

But let's be clear, the real problem in Iraq is not whether one strategy or another leads to victory or to defeat. The real problem with Iraq is the lack of real debate. And now I turn back to Richard Viguerie.

The conservative commentator claims that George Bush is a big-government Republican. The War on Terror has been used to help create one of the largest increases in the size of the federal government since the 1960s under LBJ.

President Bush excels at using rhetoric to attack those who do not agree with him on Iraq, and the political atmosphere in Washington has polarized the issue into an all-or-nothing scenario. Are there no other options available to us?

I hope for all of us that debate will result. Otherwise we will be left with a quagmire that continues to suck resources from our nation. Which gets me to thinking -- when will someone mention our budget deficit in a debate? These issues are too big and too consequential not to discuss in a serious fashion.

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