WASHINGTON — In speech after speech, Democratic presidential candidates agreed on the issues of the day: Global warming must be stopped, universal healthcare is imperative, the crumbling American education system must be fixed.
And on the biggest issue – Iraq – all the prospective and declared Democratic hopefuls speaking to party activists last weekend were also in basic agreement: that the US must extricate itself from the Iraq war. Where they differed was over one question: How?
As the Senate begins debate Monday on competing resolutions on Iraq, the Democrats are fresh out of their own debate on a way forward in Iraq at the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York demonstrated the challenge inherent in being the early front-runner: As she seeks to win over enough of the party faithful to win the nomination, she is also looking ahead to the general election campaign, when a position too far to the left could hurt her chances among moderates.
"There are many people who wish we could do more," Senator Clinton told the crowd, as a handful of hecklers cried out. "But let me say that if we can get a large bipartisan vote to disapprove this president's plan for escalation, that will be the first time that we will have said, 'No!' to President Bush and begin to reverse his policies."
Clinton also stated that she "wants to go further," arguing that the US needs to "threaten" Iraq's government with reduced funding for Iraqi troops if it does not start fulfilling its promises. And "if we in Congress don't end this war before January 2009, as president, I will!" she asserted.
But to many Democratic candidates, a nonbinding resolution rejecting Mr. Bush's plan to send more US troops to Iraq isn't enough, even as a starting point. Clinton and another top challenger for the nomination, Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois, face pressure from many of the other contenders to take a more forceful stand. Some of these other candidates have the luxury of not having to cast votes in Congress – most notably, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who has carved out an Iraq position to the left of Clinton and Senator Obama.
The North Carolinian says senators should not support the bipartisan resolution rejecting Bush's surge, but rather cut off funding for the war. Mr. Edwards, who supported the war as a senator in 2002 and later repudiated his vote, is the most antiwar of the leading Democratic contenders – and commands a considerable following among Democrats affiliated with organized labor. He is also well-organized in Iowa, the first nominating state, and has the potential to stun the field next January.
"We cannot be satisfied with passing non-binding resolutions that we know this president will ignore," Edwards said. "We have the power to stop the escalation of this war."
Another candidate who still has a vote in the Senate, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, has also aligned himself with antiwar liberals by saying he will not support the nonbinding resolution. But his presidential aspirations are seen as a long shot. The question is whether his presence in the race, and ability to gain media attention for his views, will put pressure on Clinton and Obama to move leftward.
Obama took perhaps the most unusual approach in his speech to the DNC. Instead of going through the usual list of policy positions, he focused instead on the nature of public discourse – and about the need to overcome the cynicism he says has become a staple of modern politics.
"The campaigns shouldn't be about making each other look bad, they should be about figuring out how we can all do some good for this precious country of ours," Obama said. "That's our mission. And in this mission, our rivals won't be one another, and I would assert it won't even be the other party. It's going to be cynicism that we're fighting against."
Obama asserted that everyone in the race has a responsibility to put forth a plan for ending the war, but did not discuss his own proposal, released last week. Obama's legislation would begin redeployment of US forces out of Iraq by May 1, 2007, and calls for the removal of all combat brigades by March 31, 2008, a date he says is consistent with the expectation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
One candidate who did discuss his Iraq plan at length, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, first came up against the axiom, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."
Last Wednesday, on the day he announced his presidential campaign, he faced a maelstrom of controversy over his attempt to compliment Obama. In calling him "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," Biden inadvertently insulted all the black presidential candidates of the past, and spent the rest of the week apologizing.
During his cattle call appearance on Saturday, Biden began with a quip: "So, how was your week?" Then he apologized again. By then, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was ready to rip into what he called "the very deep hole" the Bush administration has dug the nation into in Iraq.