State of the Democratic Debate On Iraq
Despite congressional Democrats' efforts to draw sharp lines between Ds and Rs on Iraq, the intra-Democratic debate on Iraq rages on, as illustrated by several sharp candidate exchanges during Monday's CNN/YouTube debate. And it's as good a time as any to take stock of where that debate stands, and where it might soon go.
One issue that used to divide Democrats--the advisability and winnability of the Iraq misadventure--has obviously been resolved, assuming you exclude Joe Lieberman from the discussion.
A second issue--whether to impose a deadline for withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq--has also largely been resolved, given broad Democratic support for language establishing a deadline in the suppmemental appropriations bill that Bush vetoed earlier this year, though some antiwar Democrats opposed it as insufficiently mandatory. The exact deadline date, however, still hangs fire, particularly in the presidential contest, mainly because of Bill Richardson's efforts to distinguish himself by halfing the withdrawal timetable. During Monday's debates, Richardson's "six months and out" position gave Joe Biden the opening he sought to angrily claim that it's logistically impossible to withdraw that quickly without dire danger for U.S. troops and/or civilians.
The third issue, which is steadily emerging as a dividing line among Democrats even though most Americans probably haven't heard or thought much about it, is the question of residual troops commitments to Iraq once "combat brigades" (defined rather hazily) are withdrawn. Many antiwar activists, especially in the blogosphere, have made this a virtual litmus test, arguing that any sizeable residual military force in Iraq represents a continuation of the war, not a post-war safeguard. Among the presidential candidates, Biden, Clinton and Obama have embraced Iraq plans that include a significant residual force. Richardson, Dodd and Kucinich have explicitly opposed residuals. Edwards, best I can tell, hasn't completely ruled it out or in, though it appears he would oppose the kind of robust residual force that Hillary Clinton is talking about, and would probably limit it to embassy security. (For an unusually explicit pro-residual argument, contemplating a lengthy if smaller troop commitment, check out PPI president Will Marshall's post today at the DLC's new-and-improved Ideas Primary site).
And the fourth issue, which flared up sharply during the spring, and is almost certain to return in the fall, is the question of whether congressional Democrats should take the dramatic step of cutting off funding for the war to force the administration to start withdrawing troops. As was nicely articulated by Dennis Kucinich in the Monday debate, this is the one step that Democrats, theoretically at least, could take in Congress that does not require Republican support. Ironically, this issue is highly emotional precisely because it is essentially tactical. The reluctance of Democratic congressional leaders to pursue a funding cutoff to the bitter end reflects, in the eyes of many netroots activists in particular, the timidity or even cowardice that "DC Democrats" have exhibited throughout the Bush administration.
There's still another tactical-but-contentious issue lurking in the background of all the intra-Democratic debates over Iraq: the fear that Democrats will enable Republicans to blur partisan differences on the war, reducing its salience in the 2008 elections. This is clearly the thinking behind Harry Reid's determined efforts to oppose any bipartisan resolution in the Senate endorsing the Iraq Study Group approach, which many observers believe Bush himself will ultimately embrace, however insincerely.
And finally, there's significant disagreement among Democrats about how, exactly, to judge public opinion on Iraq. Pollsters have not done much to shed light on the insider "residuals" debate, and public opinion on the impact of a protracted funding cutoff debate remains murky, though support for that strategy has clearly grown this year as Bush's intransigence on Iraq has become more obvious.
Moreover, as Chris Cillizza points out today in a fascinating glimpse at the internals of the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, support for "immediate" as opposed to "gradual" withdrawal from Iraq among Democrats doesn't follow any predictable pattern of ideological self-identification, age, or candidate preference (though region does seem to have an impact, with support for immediate withdrawal strongest in the West and weakest in the South). Most notably, the Post found that those favoring immediate withdrawal are a larger percentage of Hillary Clinton's base of support than of Barack Obama's. This finding alone is one that will almost certainly contribute to an escalation of efforts by Clinton's rivals to make Democratic differences over Iraq front and center in the nomination fight. Where that leaves the ultimate nominee going into the general election is a question that all Democrats should begin to ponder.
UPDATE: When I wrote this post, I hadn't yet run across Walter Shapiro's Salon piece today, which focuses on the emerging differences among Democratic presidential candidates on the residual forces issue. He slices and dices the field on this subject much as I did, with the added advantage that he's actually interviewed the candidates about it.