With the nation poised for war with Iraq, presidential contenders, House and Senate leaders and party strategists are considering cancelling fundraising events, toning down their rhetoric and finding symbolic ways to stand with the troops if and when fighting breaks out.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) said he would expect all overt political activity, from fundraising to public campaigning, to stop once the war starts.
“That would be the advisable thing to do,” he said.
Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), meanwhile, has pulled back on scheduling events after Easter, out of concern that he may have to cancel them later, according to a senior GOP leadership aide.
Sen. George Allen (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said his committee does not have any major events planned in the next few weeks but would inevitably alter its activities when the war started. Allen noted that direct-mail fundraising would almost definitely come to a halt — just as he ordered fundraising pitches to stop after the space shuttle Columbia crashed last month.
“I said, ‘I don’t want any more mail going out until after the memorial service,’” he said.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, however, is moving full-speed ahead with plans for its annual fundraising gala at the Washington Hilton on March 18, a day after the newly proposed deadline for Iraq to disarm.
The dinner, which President Bush is not scheduled to attend, is expected to haul in $4 million.
“We are continuing ahead with our plans for the March 18 dinner,” said NRCC spokesman Steve Schmidt. “Hopefully it will be a dinner that takes place in peacetime because the Iraqi dictator has disarmed.”
While the major event will still go on, albeit likely with a subdued program, the start of war in coming weeks could have a greater impact on smaller fundraising functions. In addition to the March 18 dinner honoring Bush, there are 84 fundraisers scheduled for GOP Members and candidates between today and the end of March, according to the NRCC’s calendar of events.
“You can pretty much count on a major, major scale-back of overtly political fundraising,” said one Republican Party operative, likening the situation to the suspension of political activity immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “I think you can expect that from both sides.”
Democrats, meanwhile, also appear to be pressing ahead with their fundraising schedule. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has scheduled its annual Washington, D.C., fundraiser at the Hilton a week after the NRCC dinner. The event raised $2 million last year.
“We don’t intend to cancel our fundraising endeavors now,” said DCCC spokeswoman Kori Bernards.
Bernards was less clear about how military action would impact the committee’s other political activities, but she indicated that obvious considerations would be made.
“As far as what we’re doing internally, you can assume that Democrats will be respectful of our troops and the president on the war,” she said.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has fewer major fundraising events to worry about, having held its first big event of the year last Tuesday at the D.C. home of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Another event is planned for Tuesday, and after that there are a series of small events around the country.
But DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) said even those fundraisers would have to be reconsidered if the country is at war.
“We’ll have to discuss whether even that’s appropriate,” he said.
The politicians with the most at stake, however, may be the Democrats running for president. Most campaigns publicly are saying they aren’t sure how to handle attacking Bush while most voters will be pulling for a quick military victory that would benefit the incumbent.
“I haven’t thought about it yet,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who voted last October to support Bush’s Iraq effort but has since been highly critical of the president’s diplomatic effort. “I just don’t know. We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there.”
“We’ll decide if and when we’re in that situation,” said Jennifer Palmieri, spokeswoman for Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who also supported the Iraq resolution.
“It’s a difficult thing to plan for, I don’t know how you can plan for it,” said Erik Smith, spokesman for Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).
With an all-important campaign finance report coming due that will reflect their fundraising prowess through March 31, candidates appear to be pushing ahead with the behind-the-scenes campaign efforts of fundraising, endorsement hunting and staff hiring.
“The mechanics of the campaign will continue, because they have to,” said Jano Cabrera, spokesman for Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), perhaps the most outspoken Democratic ’04 aspirant supporting a hard line against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Even if the presidential candidates continue campaigning at break-neck speed, it’s unclear what the tone and nature of their rhetoric will be in the weeks ahead.
Six of the Democratic hopefuls are scheduled to address the California Democratic State Committee’s annual convention this weekend. State party officials have no plans to cancel the event, even as it appears it will take place on the eve of war.
“It goes on regardless,” said Bob Mulholland, campaign adviser to the California Democratic Party, noting that the convention will focus on economic issues.
Edwards, who is scheduled to speak on Saturday, has a stump speech that primarily attacks Bush’s record on the economy. A small portion notes his support of war in Iraq, which he then pivots on to attack Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft for revoking privacy rights of U.S. citizens.
Will Edwards be able to be as forceful in the attack against Bush in California or in the weeks afterward?
“We’ll decide what’s appropriate,” Palmieri said.
Kerry, a Silver Star recipient for his service in the Vietnam War, said he will be explicitly clear in his support of the military effort if it begins, because once the war starts the United States has to win.
“It’s a time for Americans to unite,” Kerry said.
A strategist with another campaign predicted that the nominating contest was likely headed into a rhetorically toned-down period: “No blatantly overt, blatantly partisan campaigning.”
However, this strategist added that several of the candidates, particularly the contenders who have made an anti-war stand a cornerstone of their campaign, may take a different tack.
“There is an opening for somebody to play this differently,” the aide said.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), one of the presidential hopefuls opposed to military action against Iraq, indicated that his campaign will change little if and when bombs begin falling over Baghdad.
“I will continue to travel the county to challenge the Bush administration’s policies, and work for peace,” he said.
Another potential impact for White House contenders is the timing of the formal announcements of their campaigns. Of the top-tier candidates, only Lieberman and Gephardt have formally announced their bids, while several others — Kerry, Edwards and Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) — have announced only the formation of an “exploratory” effort.
In the spring of 1999, for example, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) held off announcing his presidential campaign or any preliminary fundraising while the U.S. military fought to oust the Yugoslav army from Kosovo. A former prisoner of war and expert on military affairs, McCain, however, benefited from a steady diet of national television appearances commenting on then-President Bill Clinton’s (D) handling of the Balkan conflict before officially entering the 2000 campaign in late September 1999.
In 1991, most Democratic presidential candidates waited until well after the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War in March to formally announce their candidacies. Former Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) officially announced his bid in May, while the rest of the field, including Clinton, waited until September or October.
After Sept. 11, almost all politicians and party committees called for a hiatus in fundraising and campaigning through the end of that month. A few months later, however, it was revealed that then-North Carolina Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole (R) attended a fundraiser shortly after the attacks hosted by former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay — a doubly troubling event that dogged her for months.
Corzine, whose state lost 700 lives in the World Trade Center, said that a war in Iraq would be much different than the Sept. 11 attacks. The period of political restraint won’t have to last as long or be as respectful of Bush and Republicans in the weeks after the attacks begin in Iraq, he said.
Still, Democrats admit that they will do little to let themselves be accused of being unpatriotic when young Americans are overseas risking their lives in battle — a lesson in political flag waving that they learned the hard way when Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a triple amputee from the Vietnam War, lost his momentum when Republicans cast him as unpatriotic for not supporting the president’s version of the Department of Homeland Security.
“You will see respect across the board,” said Mike Siegel, a DSCC spokesman.