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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

"Pro-war" Democrats and the 2006 Elections

For many months, pollsters have demonstrated that public opinion is turning against the war in Iraq. About 60% of those surveyed by CBS News, over a period of many months, "disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling the situation with Iraq." At times, nearly 60% of those polled say the war was a mistake, and despite some fluctuations in the results, at least half the population seems to think that the US should never have gone to war in Iraq.

Given the way politics about national security and foreign policy are framed in the US, members of the media would probably be surprised to learn that a plurality of respondents say that "the Democratic Party is more likely to make the right decisions about the war in Iraq."

Politically, for now, the most important finding is this: 85% of those surveyed in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll January 6-8, 2006, replied that "the stituation in Iraq" would be extremely or very important to their "vote for Congress this year."

Election contests are not really on the public's radar yet, but the Denver Post recently (December 28) noted an interesting and simple Democratic strategy -- put an Iraq war veteran on the ballot:
More than 30 Iraq and Persian Gulf War veterans have entered congressional races across the country as Democrats, hoping to capitalize on their military experience to topple the incumbent Republican majority.
In my home district, five-term incumbent Anne Northup is being challenged by Andrew Horne, a Marine Reserve officer who "spent months working with Iraqi security forces and helping with reconstruction and humanitarian efforts."

Wait, before anyone gets too excited, note that the Dems tried something like this in 2004 at the very top of the ballot.

It didn't lead to the results they wanted. Republicans called Senator John Kerry a flip-flopper for voting "for the war" in October 2002, but then later criticizing its prosecution. Kerry had a tough time explaining his vote for the $87 billion before his vote against the $87 billion. And his fate might have been sealed in August 2004, when he said he'd still have voted "aye" even after it was quite apparent that Iraq had no threatening WMD or operational ties to al Qaeda.

So much for the idea that a military veteran can assure electoral success in an election dominated by national security issued and foreign affairs.

I'm confident many Republican strategists are planning to use a similar ploy in 2006.

In October 2002, remember, 29 Democratic Senators and 81 Democratic House members voted for Joint Resolution 114, which was entitled "To authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq." Not all of the "pro-war" Democrats will be up for re-election in 2006, thanks to a scattering of retirements and previous electoral losses. And, because of six year terms, only one-third of Senators stand for election every two years.

Still, dozens of Democrats up for re-election in 2006 voted for the Iraq Joint Resolution and this apparently bipartisan act will provide ammunition for all Republicans against all Democrats. Indeed, the early signs are that Republicans are prepared to use this fact as a stick with which to beat Democrats over the head.

Congress had access to the same intelligence, the President and other members of the administration claim. They also boast that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq, as he posed (allegedly) an ongoing threat to American security.

In short, Republicans argue that the war was an honest mistake, if it was a mistake, because the intelligence was flawed. Moreover, it wasn't a significant error because 9/11 "changed everything" and America has to be prepared to eliminate its enemies even before they fully develop. Iraq had the ability to make weapons of mass destruction and it was lead by a strongly anti-American despot who could have linked to terrorists at any time. Conclusion? Only weak-willed Democrats would continue to fret over a decision made three years ago. Decisive and strong leaders have to shrug off their mistakes and move on to the next fight, which appears to be Iran.

Even though the situation in Iraq is a mess, and the Bush administration is largely to blame for the American presence there, few war critics are overtly embracing a complete anti-war message and calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Many fear civil war and/or state failure, which is entirely reasonable. Nonetheless, a nuanced anti-war message is hard to sell in politics. As I've explained before, that typically works to the advantage of Republicans.
  • What can "pro-war" Democrats do to combat the likely Republican strategy in the 2006 election?
  • How can Democrats be against the war, without appearing weak?

Well, arguably, George W. Bush provided an electoral answer in the 2000 foreign policy debate with Al Gore. Debate moderator Jim Lehrer asked the candidates about the circumstances when the US should use military force.
MODERATOR: ...I figured this out; in the last 20 years there have been eight major actions that involved the introduction of U.S. ground, air or naval forces. Let me name them. Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo. If you had been president for any of those interventions, would any of those interventions not have happened?
After running through the list for Vice President Gore, Lehrer turned to then-Governor Bush and asked him what he thought about his father's military intervention in Somalia:

BUSH: Started off as a humanitarian mission and it changed into a nation-building mission, and that's where the mission went wrong. The mission was changed. And as a result, our nation paid a price. And so I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war. I think our troops ought to be used to help overthrow the dictator when it's in our best interests. But in this case it was a nation-building exercise, and same with Haiti. I wouldn't have supported either.
A few moments later, Bush elaborated on his view of nation-building:
I thought the best example of a way to handle the situation was East Timor when we provided logistical support to the Australians, support that only we can provide. I thought that was a good model. But we can't be all things to all people in the world, Jim. And I think that's where maybe the vice president and I begin to have some differences. I'm worried about overcommitting our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use. You mentioned Haiti. I wouldn't have sent troops to Haiti. I didn't think it was a mission worthwhile. It was a nation building mission, and it was not very successful. It cost us billions, a couple billions of dollars, and I'm not so sure democracy is any better off in Haiti than it was before.
So, Democrats, there you have it.

It's OK to support a well-intended military mission -- and then reject it later because the "mission changed" to "nation-building." The costs of attempted democratization are high and the benefits are often dubious. The President's views on Haiti were widely shared and an updated Iraq version might well resonate with voters.

If liberal hawks supported the Iraq war in 2003 because they genuinely feared WMD and al Qaeda, so be it. To oppose the war now, run some clips of Governor Bush explaining the circumstances when it is acceptable to change one's view.

Moreover, Dems can claim that they want to save the military. The burgeoning threat from Iran proves the need to have a military not bogged down in a political backwater by insurgents (and "dead enders") who don't have weapons of mass destruction.

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