Democratic Candidates In Iowa Differ On

Democratic Candidates in Iowa Differ on Iraq, and it Probably Doesn’t Matter

I think the Iraq War as an issue has probably been overblown as a factor in the US elections, and don’t personally think much will turn on it barring a major social revolution or major hostage-taking or something dramatic in fall of 2004.

Journalist John Wagner gives a good thumbnail sketch of the basic positions of the leading Democratic candidates on the Iraq war. They play this way:

Hawk: Dick Gephardt – wholeheartedly supported war and $87 bn. appropriation.

Dismayed Hawks: John Kerry and John Edwards voted for the war, but don’t like how Bush went in unilaterally and don’t like the mishandling of the aftermath. Voted against the $87 bn. Want to get UN involved.

Dovish Hawk: Wesley Clark admitted that Saddam was a problem; but felt the US had some time before Iraq became a front-burner issue; he celebrated the US victory in Iraq but says that the war was a detour from the effort against terrorism. Rather than focusing on the UN, Clark wants to involve NATO so as to bring some US troops home. (Controversies have swirled around Clark’s positions on Iraq since Matt Drudge manipulated texts to manufacture false impressions of Clark’s statements; the best place to find them unravelled is Josh Marshall’s superb Talking Points Memo.

Dove: Howard Dean opposed the Iraq War altogether; says Saddam’s capture has made the US no safer, and wants to internationalize the rebuilding effort so as to bring half of the 130,000 US troops in Iraq home on a short timetable.

Super-Dove: Dennis Kucinich holds that the war was wrong and US troops should be withdrawn in 90 days, and replaced with 130,000 UN peace keepers. (This position seems to me wildly unrealistic; if the UN member nations don’t come forward, would he still just bring the troops home? Wouldn’t that risk chaos in Iraq?)

The polling I’ve seen suggests that right now Iraq is not a burning issue for Iowans or most Americans who do not have direct family serving over there. Pro-Administration US television reporting has often obscured the difficulties in the post-war aftermath. So most US voters think things are going really well, when in fact the CPA is piloting between Scylla and Charybdis. So I very much doubt that much hangs on the stance toward Iraq of the candidates, though it could become an issue in the general campaign.

The central issues are domestic politics–jobs, health insurance, etc., where classic Democratic liberals like Kerry and Gephardt (both, ironically, probably to the left of Dean with regard to their actual domestic records) have an advantage, which is showing up in the 4-way split in Iowa. That is, despite being the most hawkish on the war, Kerry and Gephardt are doing very well in the Iowa polls, so that issue isn’t driving that primary.

What must be worrisome for Dean is that he hasn’t been able decisively to break out of the pack according to the polls, so that Kerry and Gephardt, and maybe even Edwards remain in play (indeed, Kerry is surging according to Zogby). If Dean can’t establish himself as the frontrunner in Iowa and New Hampshire, he will face difficulties when the race turns to the south, where Clark and Edwards will run well.

Being from Virginia originally, I can’t imagine Dean carrying any Southern states, and a Democratic candidate typically needs 5 of them to win in national elections. Kerry is handicapped in this regard, as well, though his being a Vet might help him there a little bit. This is the February schedule after New Hampshire:

February 3




New Mexico

North Dakota


South Carolina

February 7



February 8


February 10



February 14

District of Columbia


February 17


February 24




As I think about it, I surprise myself by concluding that if Kerry can win Iowa and get momentum into a first or second place in New Hampshire, and can come in second behind Clark or Edwards in the South and the West, he could survive Feb. 3 to go on to do well in Michigan, Washington and Maine. It will quickly become apparent whether Clark or Edwards is going to get most of the southern and western votes, and my suspicion is that through February there will really be two Democratic primaries running concurrently, an urban one and a rural one. (I am not counting out Dean, at all, simply speculating about the viability of a Kerry run).

A Kerry/Clark or Clark/Kerry ticket could be pretty powerful. You’d have two military men who could call Bush on his politicization of intelligence and the military, and on the way the administration has fallen down in the struggle against al-Qaeda because of the Iraq imbroglio. But more important, they might by virtue of their social policies be able to hold on to the progressives mobilized, ironically enough, by Dean, and nevertheless pull from undecided centrists (which is where the election will be decided).

It’s just speculation, and may be outmoded by Monday.

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