WASHINGTON — For most Americans, the nation is enjoying a welcome lull between elections – the '06 midterms just ended and the '08 presidential race is too far in the future to contemplate seriously.
But in reality, the jockeying among hopefuls, and potential hopefuls, is fierce, and no more so than over Iraq, as the Bush administration presses ahead with its plan to boost US troops levels there. For now, the biggest impact is on the nomination races within the parties, but if the Iraq war remains the top issue in November 2008, positions candidates take now could prove central to their chances of winning the Oval Office.
For the Democrats, all eyes are on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who is expected to announce her presidential intentions by the end of the month and who has remained cautious in her criticism of the Iraq war. With more overtly antiwar Democrats running against her, at least one of whom could prove strong in the early nomination battles (former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina), the question is whether she will feel pressure to ratchet up her opposition to the war to win over the antiwar Democratic base.
And if Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois decides to run, his approach to the war – so far, like Senator Clinton, staying away from the forefront of antiwar opposition in Congress – could affect how Clinton positions herself. Senator Obama is considered potentially the most formidable threat to Clinton's nomination. Having taken his Senate seat in 2005, he did not take part in the October 2002 vote authorizing the war. Clinton voted yes in that vote, and has yet to repudiate her position clearly.
The danger for the former first lady is that a clear repudiation opens her to charges of flip-flopping and being weak on defense. In the short run, backing a planned nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush's escalation of US involvement in Iraq would be a safe position, analysts say. Beyond that, supporting any measures that would restrict funding for US troops would be riskier.
"That's really the critical point – the cutting off of funds – and that will be the dividing line of the candidates, if it comes to pass," says a Democratic Senate aide. "This is the ongoing Democratic dilemma, which they experienced in Vietnam. There was overwhelming sentiment against the war, however, Democrats became branded as an antiwar party and weak when it came to national security."
Another potential hurdle for Clinton could be the strength in Iowa of a Democratic candidate who has already declared – former Senator Edwards. He has repudiated his 2002 vote for the war, and now does not hesitate to talk about blocking funding for an escalation of troops. Mr. Edwards is well-organized in Iowa, where antiwar sentiment is strong among Democrats. If Edwards beats Clinton in the Iowa caucuses next January – the crucial first nominating contest – and then does well in South Carolina, another base of support for him, that would present a major wrinkle in Clinton's chances.
On the Republican side, the safe position on Bush's troop escalation in Iraq is to support it – after all, a majority of Republicans still support the president – and the top-tier candidates have fallen in line. But if voters perceive that the US is mired in Iraq by the next election, that firm support could prove the death knell for the Republicans' chances of holding onto the presidency.
The presidential aspirations of Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, in particular, could live or die by his strong support for the Iraq war and for the addition of troops. He has said as much. For the other top-tier Republican candidates, namely, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, both are on board with Bush's plan for now, but as time goes on, it's possible that it would be politically expedient for one or both to shift to a stance that focuses more on winding down US involvement in Iraq. Senator McCain, who has all along called for a larger US presence in Iraq, cannot make that move.
The politically problematic nature of the war for Republicans is reflected in the fact that one announced candidate – Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas – has carved out a clear position opposing Bush's escalation. Another Republican thinking of running, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, is also a leading voice in opposition to the escalation.
Senator Brownback's view presents the unusual scenario of a presidential candidate who is courting both the evangelical vote and the antiwar vote among Republicans. But even if Brownback is considered a long shot for the nomination, his voice in the mix could create pressure on Bush and other Republicans from the right.
"There is not much of an antiwar constituency among evangelicals, but like everyone else, there is a growing concern for how the war is being conducted," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "Thus, it will be tough for Brownback to premise his campaign on this issue, but it might be a useful ancillary position if the war's unpopularity grows."