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Afghanistan Strains the Left

Liberals Yet to Find Voice

Public opposition to the war in Afghanistan may be at a record high, but you wouldn’t know it in the halls of Congress, where leading House liberals are the first to admit they’ve dropped the ball on one of their core issues.

“It’s no excuse, but the voices are all wrapped up into health care. That’s why. We just haven’t pulled it together,— said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who co-chairs the 83-member Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Woolsey insisted there is “a groundswell— of opposition to sending more troops overseas but said even anti-war lawmakers are largely focused on health care reform. “It is time that we insist to [President Barack] Obama that we have a robust public option. You tell me how easy it is to do two things at once of that magnitude,— she said.

“There are a number of people who are concerned [about Afghanistan] but are not yet clear on how to express that concern,— Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said. “People are worried about increasing the troops, but not quite sure what the alternative is.—

The search for the progressive voice on Afghanistan comes at a crucial time in the debate: Obama is meeting today with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal to discuss Afghanistan. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that Obama is weeks away from deciding whether to send more troops overseas.

Some liberals speculated that they made their mark on Iraq but lost momentum when it came to Afghanistan, which requires a far more complicated solution.

“The Progressive Caucus had a real presence on Iraq. When the president made it clear that he was increasing our presence in Afghanistan, perhaps there wasn’t enough pushback on him,— Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said.

Waters said the issue isn’t “that progressives have not cared what is happening,— but rather, that “progressives have held out hope that the president was going to make sense of it.—

Not that House liberals have been silent: McGovern last week collected 57 signatures — including seven Republicans — on a letter to Obama urging him not to send more troops to Afghanistan. And Progressive Caucus leaders are in the planning stages of a forum and task force on the issue.

Anti-war lawmakers also have strong backing from their base: A recent CNN poll found that just 23 percent of Democrats back the war.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said House progressives “definitely— have been “beating the drum very loudly— and questioned where anti-war groups like CodePink have gone since the days of rallying thousands in protest of the Iraq War.

“I don’t think we see the marches in the streets … that really helped some Members in the House, at least,— Lee said. “It was a bit more of a push because the people were protesting. I’m not sure what the reason is that we don’t see the movement in back of us.—

But simply pulling troops out of Afghanistan and abandoning the country to the Taliban isn’t a popular option with many Members. And the lack of easy options has contributed to the confusion and disorganization among liberals, who point out that Obama was left to clean up a mess from President George W. Bush.

“Most Americans understand that we were attacked and we need to respond. But eight years later, Bush never found Osama bin Laden and there’s a corrupt government in place,— said a Democratic leadership aide. “We took our eye off the ball, and now we have to focus on it.—

Darcy Burner, executive director of the American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation, said there is a broad understanding among liberals that Afghanistan is more than a military problem. But a decision to invest in infrastructure and development isn’t easy, either.

“It’s costly to do it, it’s costly not to do it,— Burner said. “There is no easy solution. The only question is which hard solution is going to be best for our country.—

Obama, meanwhile, gets some benefit of the doubt as he tries to develop a strategy. Added Burner: “There is, broadly speaking, an assumption that he’s working in good faith, which is not an assumption that anyone could have with respect to the previous president.—

McGovern acknowledged that it is difficult for some Democrats to raise questions about Obama’s policies since “we’re of the same party, we agree on a whole bunch of things, we don’t want to appear critical.—

But Woolsey dismissed the idea that liberals have given Obama a pass, even though that may appear to be the case.

“It actually looks like we’re saying, ‘Well, this is our guy so we’re just going to turn our heads.’ It’s just been too much and the weeks are too short— in the House schedule, she said.

Added Woolsey: “It’s all excuses, I know.—

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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