A few days after last year's presidential election, Ladda (Tammy) Duckworth was piloting her helicopter north of Baghdad when she saw a ball of fire at her knees. A rocket-propelled grenade had struck her Black Hawk at its chin bubble, close to her seat. When she awoke 10 days later, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, she found she had lost her legs, but none of her desire to serve. For the next year, as she recovered from her devastating injuries, she became one of the capital's favorite troops: an inspirational war story amid the grinding violence of Iraq. She was a senator's guest at the State of the Union and a witness before a congressional hearing on health care for war casualties. As Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson put it, she was simply "a true American hero."
She could have stayed a trophy veteran. But as Major Duckworth met with Democratic members of Congress, she talked about how she viewed politics as an extension of her service. One summer's day she invited Rahm Emanuel, the Democrats' master strategist in the House of Representatives, to the hospital to meet some recovering vets from their home state of Illinois. "We were walking down the hall and you could see the incredible response to her and her leadership," Emanuel told NEWSWEEK. "She goes to see other troops to keep their spirits up." Last week Duckworth returned home to Chicago's affluent suburbs to begin what looked like an unofficial campaign for the open congressional seat now held by retiring Republican Rep. Henry Hyde. Still on active duty, Duckworth cannot declare her candidacy or talk politics to the media. But according to Democratic leaders, she's their preferred candidate.
Duckworth is part of a new breed of macho Democrats, joining eight Iraq veterans who have already announced themselves as candidates in next year's congressional elections. (The party is also reaching out to veterans of wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Vietnam, as well as former CIA officers and FBI agents.) These Democrats don't offer a unified strategy on how to leave Iraq. But they represent the most visible sign of the sea change in politics over the past year. The GOP has long held an advantage on questions of national security, but that lead has steadily eroded, offering Democrats a rare opening since 9/11. Recent polls show Democrats running neck and neck with Republicans on terrorism and comfortably ahead on Iraq. For all the lack of alternatives, Democrats have gained ground as public opinion has turned against the war. With relatively few competitive seats across the country, as well as a bigger campaign war chest, the GOP is still favored to retain control of the House. But Democrats believe they have found candidates who personify what voters want: real Americans (not politicians) who represent community, service and, of course, security. The vets also represent the Democrats' best hope of burying their GOP-crafted caricature as the Mommy party of John Kerry--unable to defend the country from terrorists or themselves from political attack. "A macho Democrat is someone who isn't afraid to stand up for what they believe in, to tell their story, to fight back when they're unfairly attacked," says John Lapp, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Their opponents aren't waiting for them to suit up. The White House says it doesn't matter who the candidate is: the Democrats cannot argue from a position of strength on the war given the depth of antiwar sentiment inside their base. One senior Bush aide, who declined to be named while discussing political strategy, pointed to the Democrats' dilemma when confronted with Rep. John Murtha's calls for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. "It took Hillary Clinton five days to respond to the Murtha statement," the aide said, suggesting that Clinton was struggling to reconcile her hawkish position on the war with the demands of the party base. "That shows the dynamic of the Democratic Party. They are always pulled to the left, the same thing John Kerry found out during the primary process." Other Republicans say the war isn't going to affect the '06 elections either way. "Local dynamics will trump everything," says Tom Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Reynolds dismisses the Democratic veterans' strategy as "just a bunch of hoopla," saying his goal is simply to recruit the best candidates. With just one Iraq veteran on the ballot (Van Taylor, a 33-year-old former Marine who is running in the Texas district where Bush owns his ranch), the GOP has a far more modest strategy: to persuade incumbents to delay their retirement. Reynolds says they shouldn't abandon the Republican majority right now. "I tell them: stay and enjoy it," he says.
The Democrats have been here before. It was only a year ago that they pinned their hopes on Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran and outspoken war critic only to watch him collapse under friendly fire from fellow veterans. Another veteran, Gen. Wes Clark, proved that unelected soldiers aren't always ready for prime time. And two years earlier, another Vietnam hero, Max Cleland, lost his Senate seat as the White House went to war in Iraq--and Republicans declared total war on Cleland.
But that was back when the GOP was still riding high in the polls. This summer, Paul Hackett helped jump-start the Democrats' faith in soldier-politicians. After a seven-month tour of Iraq as a Marine reservist, the untested Hackett entered a special election to fill an open House seat in the conservative second district of Ohio. Combining vocal criticism of Bush's handling of the war with an attack on ethics scandals plaguing the state GOP, Hackett came within 3,500 votes of an electoral upset. (He lost to Jean Schmidt, who earned scorn this month for suggesting on the House floor that Murtha--a decorated Vietnam veteran--was a coward.) Buoyed by his near miss, Hackett decided to try again--this time for the Senate seat held by Republican Michael DeWine, up for election in '06. And Emanuel began stepping up efforts to find other veterans in the Hackett mold.
He found one in Chris Carney, who is running for a House seat in northeastern Pennsylvania. Carney is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, but his specialty is intel and counterterrorism. That took him inside the Bush administration as a Pentagon adviser, where he argued the case that there were links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. As a uniformed officer, Carney defended the road to war even as he began harboring concerns about its execution--the lack of troops on the ground and the absence of planning for a possible insurgency. He decided to run--as a Democrat, his lifelong affiliation--in part to reshape policy on the war, advocating a phased withdrawal with clear targets. "For every trained-up battalion of Iraqi security forces, an American battalion should get to come home," he told NEWSWEEK.
While Carney watched the war from Washington, Patrick Murphy decided to get involved in politics shortly after returning from Iraq. A lieutenant commander in the 82nd Airborne, Murphy was embarrassed by the lack of supplies and support as he helped train Iraqi security forces. If anything, Murphy--now running in Pennsylvania's eighth district northeast of Philadelphia--takes a harder line on the timetable for withdrawal from Iraq than many of his fellow vets. "To win the war on terror," he says, "we need to get the hell out of Iraq." A lifelong Democrat, he happened to vote for George W. Bush in the 2000 election. "At that time I believed the rhetoric that he was a compassionate conservative and that he wasn't going to start doing nation-building," he said.
Despite the national Democrats' faith in these candidates, the hopefuls aren't shoo-ins at home. Some face resistance from local pols who see them as arrivistes jumping ahead in the political pecking order. While the national party leaders love Hackett, the state party leans toward Sherrod Brown, a seven-term congressman; the two will do battle in the primary next spring. In Illinois, Duckworth's emergence has dismayed supporters of Christine Cegelis, a software engineer who won a respectable 44 percent against Hyde last year. And some of the Democratic vets are more conservative than their party's base on crucial issues like abortion and gun rights, let alone how and when to wind down the U.S. presence in Iraq.
But the war has taken its toll on party unity among Republicans, too--as rank- and-file members up for re-election begin edging nervously away from their embattled president. House Republicans cite poll numbers showing that voters may disapprove of Bush and Congress in general, but largely approve of their own representatives. That suggests the GOP should follow localized strategies for survival--or, in the words of one House Republican (who spoke on condition of ano-nymity about campaign tactics), a strategy best summed up as "Remember Me? You Like Me." In Ohio, Rep. Deborah Pryce is fighting against Democratic efforts to tie her to Bush, Iraq and the indicted former GOP House leader Tom DeLay. Pryce told one Columbus TV station she hoped voters would judge her only "on my performance and my service to them."
For his part, Bush will try once again to reshape the national debate on Iraq this week with a speech in Annapolis, Md., where he will cite a new metric of progress: the amount of territory controlled by Iraqi security forces. Bush's aides want to demonstrate advances on the ground ahead of next month's elections for a full-term Iraqi government, as well as next year's congressional elections here at home.
For many Iraq vets on the path to politics, the well-worn debate about the war--including exit strategies and the rationale for the invasion--is an emotional minefield given their concerns about their fellow troops. Tammy Duckworth, for instance, would much rather talk about veterans' issues and the need to get adequate resources to those in the field. Whether she and her fellow vets can survive the new combat zone will test something more than machismo. Politicians sent them to war. Now they must prove they can campaign--and govern--as well as they can fight.