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Originally published April 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 26, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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David S. Broder / Syndicated columnist

Reid's foot-in-mouth disease

Here's a Washington political riddle where you fill in the blanks: "As Alberto Gonzales is to the Republicans, Blank Blank...

WASHINGTON — Here's a Washington political riddle where you fill in the blanks: "As Alberto Gonzales is to the Republicans, Blank Blank is to the Democrats — a continuing embarrassment thanks to his amateurish performance."

If you answered Harry Reid, give yourself an "A." And join the long list of senators of both parties who are ready for these two exhibitions of ineptitude to come to an end.

President Bush's highly developed tolerance for egregious incompetence in his administration may have met its supreme test in Attorney General Gonzales, who at various times has taken complete responsibility for the firing of eight U.S. attorneys and also professed complete ignorance of the reasons for their dismissal. This demonstration of serial obfuscation so impressed the president that he rushed out to declare that Gonzales had "increased my confidence in his ability to do the job."

As if that were not mind-boggling enough, consider the mental gyrations performed by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as he rationalized the recent comment from his majority leader, Harry Reid, the leading light of Searchlight, Nev., that the war in Iraq "is lost."

On "Fox News Sunday," Schumer offered this clarification of Reid's off-the-cuff comment. "What Harry Reid is saying is this war is lost — in other words, a war where we mainly spend our time policing a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. We are not going to solve that problem. ... The war is not lost. And Harry Reid believes this — we Democrats believe it. ... So the bottom line is if the war continues on this path, if we continue to try to police and settle a civil war that's been going on for hundreds of years in Iraq, we can't win. But on the other hand, if we change the mission and have that mission focus on the more narrow goal of counterterrorism, we sure can win."

Everyone got that clear? This war is lost. But the war can be won. Not since Bill Clinton famously pondered the meaning of the word "is" has a Democratic leader so confused things as Harry Reid managed to do with his inept discussion of the alternatives in Iraq.

Nor is this the first time that Senate Democrats, who chose Reid as their leader over Chris Dodd of Connecticut, have had reason to ponder the political fallout from Reid's tussles with the language.

Hailed by his staff as "a strong leader who speaks his mind in direct fashion," Reid is assuredly not a man who misses many opportunities to put his foot in his mouth. In 2005, he attacked Alan Greenspan, then the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, as "one of the biggest political hacks we have in Washington."

He called President Bush "a loser," then apologized. He said Bill Frist, then the Senate majority leader, "has no institutional integrity" because Frist planned to leave the Senate to fulfill a personal term-limits pledge. Then he apologized to Frist.

Most of these earlier gaffes were personal, bespeaking a kind of displaced aggressiveness on the part of the one-time amateur boxer. But Reid's verbal wanderings on the war are consequential — not just for his party and the Senate but for the more important question of what happens to U.S. policy in that violent country and to the men and women whose lives are at stake.

Given the way the Constitution divides the war-making power between the president as commander in chief and Congress as the sole source of funds to support the armed services, it is essential that at some point Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi be able to negotiate with the White House to determine the course America will follow from now until a new president takes office.

To say that Reid has sent conflicting signals of his readiness for such discussions is an understatement. It has been impossible for his own members, let alone the White House, to sort out what ground Reid is prepared to defend — for more than 24 hours at a time.

Instead of reinforcing the important proposition — defined by the Iraq Study Group — that a military strategy for Iraq is necessary but not sufficient to solve the myriad political problems of that country, Reid has mistakenly argued that the military effort is lost but a diplomatic-political strategy can still succeed.

The Democrats deserve better and the country needs more than Reid has offered as majority leader.

David S. Broder's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is davidbroder@washpost.com

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