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Democratic Leaders on Capitol Hill Are Still Playing Iraq Just Right

Now that the dust has settled on the Congressional vote on the supplemental appropriations bill and on the ruckus that anti-war opponents of the bill kicked up, it’s time to assess the political implications. [IMGCAP(1)]

First, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill played the issue like a Stradivarius. They forced a vote on a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, putting Republicans on record supporting the status quo and President Bush, but allowed a subsequent vote to “fund the troops.” That gave their own Members from swing districts the opportunity to demonstrate their support for the military.

From a purely political point of view, Democrats had their cake and ate it too. Yes, the war is unpopular, and opposing it is a no-brainer. But the one thing Democrats need to avoid is looking like themselves during the 1970s and 1980s — weak and unwilling to support America’s men and women in uniform. Yes, they’ve spent the past few years speaking the right words on national security and the armed forces, but if they had refused to pass a spending bill, they would have at the very least opened themselves to attack from the GOP.

So, in ignoring the demands of the party’s left, Congressional leaders have kept their party right where they want it — against the war but also against terrorists and for the troops.

Second, some Democrats are openly unhappy that Congress cooperated with the president. Presidential hopeful John Edwards argued that Congressional Democrats should pass the same deadline bill again and again until Bush signed it, and anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan announced that she will no longer be the face of the anti-war movement and was distressed that “Democrats caved in to George Bush.”

While a bit more confrontation with the president probably wouldn’t have gotten Congressional Democrats into trouble and would have pleased the party’s left, the Democratic House and Senate leaders wisely played things safe by allowing a bill to pass that Bush could sign.

Why take a chance alienating swing voters when the party already made its point by sending the president a deadline bill that he vetoed?

Anti-war critics of the Democratic Congressional leadership have nowhere else to go, both now and in November 2008.

Liberal bloggers apparently are angry with Democratic Rep. Mark Udall’s vote for the supplemental, but they’ll support him in next year’s open-seat Senate race in Colorado. Similarly, the 2008 Democratic nominee for president will be more appealing to anti-war liberals than the Republican nominee will be, so the Democratic Party risks very little, at least at this point, in disappointing its most ideological, confrontational element.

Third, the vote on the supplemental was far more dangerous for the party’s presidential hopefuls than for the Democrats’ Members of Congress.

House and Senate Democrats are able to deal with Bush’s war, since they have no commander in chief authority and are not viewed by most Americans as the initiators of U.S. foreign policy. The Congressional opposition can score political points merely by complaining about the president’s policies and demanding a change.

Indeed, that’s how the Democrats won their majorities in 2006. The party had no unified agenda on Iraq — the Democratic call for a deadline didn’t spread across the party until after November’s results — and it gained control of both chambers by making the election a referendum on the president and his Iraq policy.

But presidential elections are different. They are to a much greater extent a choice between leaders and visions. Past performance, of course, is a factor, and were Bush running for re-election, the 2008 election would be a referendum on him, as 1992 was a referendum on his father and 1980 was a referendum on then-President Jimmy Carter’s leadership.

Even if voters are unhappy with a failed foreign policy, they are likely to want a president who is perceived as strong and tough when it comes to foreign policy. Of course, that doesn’t mean they will want a unilateralist. Or that they won’t vote for someone who calls for more international cooperation. But they won’t vote for someone who isn’t viewed as willing to fight for U.S. interests.

For Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), both of whom voted against the bill that eventually passed, the fight over the supplemental was (and is likely to return again as) a problem. Clinton spent a long time trying to establish her international credentials for toughness, and her gender probably is an added burden as she tries to fill the commander in chief role. Still, Americans apparently view her as personally tough, which makes it easier for her to convince voters that she’d aggressively defend American interests as president.

Obama has a similar problem, in part because of his lack of international experience. Moreover, his general message of hope and unity doesn’t inevitably lead voters to see him as tough internationally and able to protect Americans from terrorists.

Edwards’ strong position against the war, combined with his recent remarks questioning the phrase “war against terror,” put him in a precarious position as he campaigns for the nation’s top job. He talks angrily about the war, but he still lacks a great deal of international experience. While voters may find him appealing as a leader against Bush’s Iraq policy, the former North Carolina Senator may not be nearly as convincing as commander in chief.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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