Democrats, Politics, and Iraq

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Yesterday, Kevin Drum took Wesley Clark to task for his New York Times op-ed laying out how to “change course” in Iraq. Indeed, read as an actual policy proposal, Clark’s op-ed had nothing more than a few decent ideas punctuated by bouts of wishful thinking. It’s nothing to get excited about. On the other hand, it’s probably not an actual policy proposal.

I’m no expert, but I doubt that politicians and potential presidential candidates ever write op-eds in the New York Times because they feel they have some novel idea or strategy they think no one else has considered yet. This goes double for the current war in Iraq. The first thing everyone should remember is that the president will never listen to the Democrats on Iraq, no matter what they say, no matter how crafty their ideas, no matter how sparkling their proposals. On a basic level, it would be awfully naïve for someone like Clark to play dumb and pretend that the White House will heed his advice. Let’s assume he’s not that dumb.

In that case, the point of any op-ed of this sort is political positioning, pure and simple, as it should be. If you think the Republican Party has driven this country into a tree, if you think the Iraq war is a disaster that will take decades to recover from, and if you think the president won’t listen to reason, then the only way forward is to lay the groundwork to win elections in 2006 and 2008. Call it “overly political,” but it’s also right and rational. And Clark might well be helping here. Back in August, Charlie Cook explained the basic poll dynamics at work over Iraq:

For a month or two, there has been a theory circulating among those that watch polls that the American public can be broken down into four distinct groups: those that have always been against the war; those who were for it but now believe we’ve blown it and should pull out; those who supported the war, believe the invasion was successful but think that the aftermath has been completely blown, yet would hate to see us withdraw immediately and lose all we’ve invested; and those that have always been for the war.

Pollsters say that the first group — always against — makes up about 30 percent of the electorate, while the second group — those that started off in favor of the war but now see it as a lost cause — includes about 20 percent. These two categories total half of all voters in opposition.

The third group — those that are conflicted because they see the effort as doomed and casualties increasing, yet still hate to see us ‘cut and run’ — makes up another 25 percent.

Assume Cook is right on this. Then here’s what we have: those Democrats who are advocating withdrawal can, at best, capture support from the first two groups, and, at the very least, cause these groups to turn against the president and, presumably, the Republican Party. But that’s still only 50 percent of the electorate on the Democratic side—hardly enough to recapture Congress.

So that leaves the third group of voters—”those that are conflicted because they see the effort as doomed… yet still hate to see us ‘cut and run.'” This group seems to consist of what Walter Russell Mead once called “the Jacksonians”; war-mongering Americans who would rather cut off their left arm than see America lose a war, but are having real doubts about Iraq. Many in this group may never vote Democratic. But some of them might. At the very least, “hawkish” Democrats like Clark and Biden might at least be causing this group to doubt the president’s resolve, especially if the Jacksonians can be convinced that the president isn’t doing everything he needs to do to win.

If Mead is right, then nothing infuriates Jacksonians more than a president waging a half-hearted war. Over the past year, Bush has been facing this fury. My guess is that president’s recent uptick in the polls has come about because his Iraq speech shored up support among more than a few Jacksonians, who were persuaded that he would do what it takes to win. But that bounce may not last. What hawks like Biden and Clark seem to be doing—regardless of whether they truly believe we should stay or not—is chipping away at this certainty. (They also probably erode support for the war itself, which is good news for the withdrawal advocates.)

Is it a problem that Democrats aren’t at all unified on Iraq, that you have Feingold saying one thing and Clark another? Robin Wright and Mike Crowley sure seem to think so. I don’t. There simply isn’t going to be a national election in 2006. Different congressional and Senate Democrats will have to hold various positions on the war to appeal to their particular districts and states. And that’s as it should be—people in North Dakota may have different views about the war from people in Connecticut, and there’s no reason why, in an electoral system like ours, both have to vote for some Democrat toeing a single party line.

In 2008, of course, Democrats will be nominating someone who will actually be in a position to do something about Iraq, if we’re still bogged down there. In that case, let primary voters decide. American democracy is nothing to brag about, but it’s still a decent way to choose among competing views.

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