So Much For Looking "Reasonable"
In watching some of the weekend chat fests, I noted the glee in which the Beltway punditocracy stuck a knife into the anti-war base of the Democratic Party in the aftermath of the last Democratic debate. The narrative that has formed since that debate is that all three of the top Democratic candidates have taken the “responsible” position that America will have a long term military presence inside Iraq, and have rejected the “dangerous” clamor from the anti-war base for an immediate withdrawal. Regrettably, I think the pundits are correct here in their perception, but they may have missed the two biggest outcomes from seeing Clinton, Obama, and Edwards all agree that there will be a significant American military footprint inside Iraq well into 2013.
First, if the top three all agree that there will be tens of thousands of American soldiers inside Iraq as late as 2013, then any plans that Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi had for attaching mission change language to the funding bill just died a quick death. This was clearly a case of the top three candidates simultaneously trying to send a reality check to the base and a “you can count on me” assurance to the Beltway Foreign Policy Wise Men. But in doing this, the Democratic Party has just told George W. Bush that he has nothing to worry about now for the remainder of his term. Any rhetoric from Reid, Pelosi, and even the candidates themselves about forcing Bush to clean up his mess will now be dismissed because what Hillary, Obama, and even Edwards did was take the next 12-14 months off the table as an area of disagreement. Why argue over something your own candidates just said was baked in the cake? All that remains among the top three now is a meaningless debate over why they would have managed a disastrous occupation better than Bush.
Second, by doing this, the top three just sucked a great deal of energy for their candidacies out of the base. Why would anyone in the anti-war base fight for Obama, Hillary, or even Edwards when they all have said that there will still be tens of thousands of troops inside Iraq in 2013? Richardson and Dodd at least see the mileage in opposing a long-term presence, and Biden sees the mileage in proposing the partition and ending our combat role in favor of a transitional role with international forces to push along that partition. But what is left to argue about between Hillary, Obama’s, or Edwards’ position if all now envision still having 25,000-50,000 troops inside Iraq by 2013? And how can any of them say that in one breath, and then say in the next breath that they want $100 billion a year for universal health care perhaps as early as 2010. How can any of them talk about a major presence inside Iraq as late as 2013, given the $800 billion annual Pentagon budget needed to support that presence, and then turn around and say that universal health care to the tune of $100-120 billion a year is their top domestic priority in 2009?
In fact, what you will see now among the top three is a shift from talking about the war to talking about who is the best change agent. Obama has been pushing this theme for weeks, and Hillary pushed this theme yesterday in Oakland. It's a shift that is calibrated to work with independents and moderates in both parties, but at the risk of chilling the anti-war base of the party. And it creates a real opportunity for the second-tier candidates to use the war as a ladder issue for one of them to raise their poll standings during the home stretch before next year.
But it's a hard sell to portray yourself as the candidate of change who will end "Cowboy Diplomacy" days after you voted in favor of Lieberman-Kyl and didn't come out strongly against a long-term military footprint inside Iraq.