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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

“Poetic License” On Complex Issues

(NOTE: This item by Ed Kilgore was originally posted at The Daily Strategist on March 26, 2008).
Yesterday we published a guest post by Progressive Policy Institute president Will Marshall warning that all three surviving major-party presidential candidates seem to be gripped by a primary-season focus that’s leading them to say things on certain issues they may regret in a general election contest or in office. His particular focus was on the alleged competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to demonize NAFTA and identify with an out-now position on Iraq, though McCain’s conservative-pleasing “victory” talk about Iraq drew his ire as well.
I beg to differ with my friend Will Marshall, not because I deny the primary-general tension that has always existed in every contested nomination contest, but because I think the Democratic candidates aren’t just pandering to primary voters, but are trying to address exceptionally complex issues in ways that are difficult to capture in simple campaign messages.
Iraq’s the clearest case. Will’s right that public support for immediate withdrawal from Iraq has always been low, and has sagged a bit in recent months. From my own reading of many polls on the subject, I’d say a strong plurality of Americans are pretty much where they’ve been for two-to-three years: the Iraq War was a mistake, and the U.S. military engagement there should be ended as quickly and as thoroughly as a non-catastrophic outcome will permit. Doubts about the pace of withdrawal seem to be linked to the fear of a collapse of the country into chaos; there’s not much evidence of strong support for the “flypaper” theory that the war is making America safer by “pinning down” al Qaeda militants, or for the constant GOP assertion that anything less than “victory” will “embolden our enemies” and represent a major blow to our overall security posture.
The specific Iraq plans of both Democratic candidates contemplate regularly scheduled withdrawals of combat troops accompanied by various political and diplomatic initiatives, hedged by a residual force commitment closely linked to avoidance of the very catastrophic contingencies that most Americans seem to fear. Both candidates predict that a decisive shift away from a combat role for U.S. troops will produce the international involvement and Iraqi political breakthrough necessary to maintain stability. But both candidates also refuse to rule out a renewal of more active military role in Iraq if the country dissolves into sectarian chaos, if outsiders intervene, or if al-Qaeda-in-Iraq stages a comeback. Looks to me like Clinton and Obama are nicely positioned with public opinion on Iraq, aside from their basic difference as to whether the whole Iraq commitment was a mistake in conception (Obama) or in execution (Clinton).
What seems to bug Will Marshall is that Obama and Clinton are emphasizing the aspects of their very similar plans that predict a move towards withdrawal will produce a breakthrough, rather than highlighting their residual military commitments. But while the two candidates may possibly be wrong about the positive galvanic effect of a withdrawal timetable, it’s hard to say they are being dishonest or are “pandering” to antiwar opinion or “base voters.”
Remember that both Clinton and Obama have resisted considerable and continuous pressure, from antiwar activists and other candidates, to renounce their “hedging bets” positions on withdrawal timetables and residual troops, and just flatly say they’d quickly liquidate the whole mess and hope for the best. It would have been easy for Obama–the consistent critic of the Iraq-o-centric focus of U.S. security policy–in particular to have adopted the “over-the-horizon” concept championed by John Murtha and eventually embraced by John Edwards, that would make near-total troops withdrawal from Iraq itself unconditional, while acknowledging a continuing U.S. interest in the fate of the country.
Whether or not you agree with their policies, it’s just not plausible to conclude that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are making their Iraq positions contingent on embracing an implicit “out-now” posture. As for their general-election positioning, so long as John McCain continues to talk about “victory” in Iraq–and he’s made this a signature theme that he can’t abandon without seriously damaging his “straight talk” pretensions–they are far more in alignment with public opinion than the GOP candidate.
NAFTA is less important than Iraq, but probably more complicated. As John Judis clearly explains in a New Republic piece that Will cited, NAFTA in the public imagination is not the North American Free Trade Agreement in its specificity, but a symbol of U.S. confidence that virtually any market-opening agreement will redound to our ultimate benefit. It’s similar to the No Child Left Behind legislation–another policy disconnect between the Democratic left and center–where calls for repeal batten on general unhappiness with overall existing conditions rather than a specific focus on the policies and philosophies involved.
Here I would tend to agree with Will that NAFTA-bashing is a disingenuous way for either Obama or Clinton to convey their determination to rethink the U.S. strategy for dealing with economic globalization. But so long as John McCain and the GOP continue to present free trade as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, with the “losers” expected to suck it up and somehow survive, then the basic positioning of the Democratic candidates on trade and globalization may be both principled and politically expedient. Since Will is arguing that the Democratic candidates are pandering to the party “base,” I’d note that unhappiness with NAFTA and globalization goes well beyond the Democratic “base” ranks, and is probably more regional and generational than partisan.
In any event, while Will’s warning is welcome, it ultimately invites a direct comparison of the three remaining candidates. And I remain convinced that John McCain’s incoherent rationale for his various positions, along with his consistent but extremist positions on Iraq and on globalization, are a much bigger deal politically and morally than any possible prevarications fomented by Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

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