War photoMy son called me last night to wish me happy Father’s Day, and after we exchanged the usual pleasantries, one of the first things he said was how everyone seems to be very discouraged about the country, and especially let down about the direction we’re heading in Iraq. I’ve been feeling exactly the same way, and I don’t think this was a coincidence or genetically driven consensus. You see the signs everywhere, and the national polls indicate that less than 20 percent of the public believes the country is headed in the right direction, while nearly 70 percent believe we’re headed in the wrong direction. Those are astonishing, almost unprecedented numbers.

After their embarrassing retreat on the Iraq supplemental funding bill, and the drubbing they took in the polls soon after, Congressional Democrats are struggling with how to define a path out of Iraq, knowing that even in their own party, they still don’t have the votes or even a clear goal to end America’s occupation in that savaged country. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are promising to bring a withdrawal deadline and other measures before Congress soon, but I’ve read nothing that suggests the Democrats have a plan or a strategy that will result in a different outcome from the supplemental funding bill. If I’ve missed something, I’d sure like to hear about it.

Kathryn, RevDeb, Mr. RevDeb and I attended a community meeting in Natick, Massachusetts on Saturday to hear Senator Kerry speak and answer questions about Iraq. Our friend Ryan, a local blogger, had this insightful reaction, and another local blogger prepared a summary of Kerry’s opening statement and response to about a dozen questions. My own reaction is that our Senator was honestly struggling with how best to extract America from the Iraq quagmire, but I was dismayed to hear that Kerry was almost incoherent in explaining how this could be done.

I would have thought that a long-time member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the man who was the Democratic standard bearer in 2004, and someone who, shall we say, is sensitive to where the political winds are blowing, would have come prepared to answer the most predictable questions about Iraq. To be sure, he had a general position about the need to emphasize political/diplomatic versus military solutions, and he strongly favors a regional conference of neighboring countries to agree on regional security arrangements that would both support political solutions within Iraq and not spread its sectarian tensions further. But on how we get there with this Congress and this President, Kerry’s basic response was “we don’t have the votes; we need more Democrats in 2008.”

Senator Biden, appearing on ABC’s talking head show yesterday, echoed this general notion of helplessness, repeating the idea he expressed at the New Hampshire debate that we can’t get out of Iraq until we have a different President. If you start with that assumption (which I share until someone shows me another plausible scenario), then one can explain a vote for the supplemental funding bill if, as Biden does, one believes that’s the only way to get better armored vehicles to the troops who are stuck there. Since we can’t get them out, at least protect them better from IEDs. In that framework, Biden’s “wrong” vote becomes more logical and defensible than the “right” votes cast by Clinton and Obama. Biden is resigned that we can’t change the fundamental politics with this President, even with Bush at 28 percent. Is he right?

Democrats desperately need a framework that breaks free from this immobilizing logic. The stories from Iraq are about benchmarks going unmet, about increasing violence and mounting casualties. Yesterday, General Petraeus was Mr. Reasonable as he explained why we shouldn’t expect progress quickly and why we might need to be there for the next ten years or so, and how he’d give us an honest assessment in September. But the real world news is in today’s Washington Post, which features another devastating report from Anne Hull and Dana Priest on the traumatic head and mental injuries sustained by US troops. Read it slowly and then remember, that’s just our troops. There’s another set of stories about what this war is doing to the Iraqis.

Photo: US troops in Afghanistan, (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)