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The Democratic candidates for president talk a lot about what they call the misguided policies of President Bush in Iraq. It comes up at almost every debate and gets addressed in forums, advertisements and letters to voters.
Mostly, it's an easy position to take as polls show voters increasingly unhappy with the war. The problem comes when the Democratic candidates try distinguishing their Iraq positions from one another.
"They're looking for ways to separate themselves on Iraq in hopes that voters will say 'OK, the candidates are close, so who opposed the war first or who is the loudest?'" said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent analyst with The Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.
Barack Obama, for instance, has been using his consistent opposition to the war to contrast to himself from fellow front-runners Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.
"I opposed this war from the beginning," he said at a campaign speech in Iowa in September 2007. "I opposed the war in 2002. I opposed the war in 2003. I opposed it in 2004 and 2005 and 2006."
The point he's trying to make, as he raises the issue in debates and other venues, is that he has better judgment than the candidates who supported the war at the start.
There are four Democratic candidates who voted in 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq: Clinton, Edwards, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd. Of those, none pivoted away from that position as soon and as sharply as Edwards. He argued during his 2004 run for president, during which he became the party's vice presidential nominee, that the problem with war was that it had been badly mismanaged.
But by November 2005, Edwards formally repudiated his vote. He began an opinion piece published in the Washington Post at the time with the simple statement, "I was wrong."
He continued: "While we can't change the past, we need to accept responsibility, because a key part of restoring America's moral leadership is acknowledging when we've made mistakes or been proven wrong -- and showing that we have the creativity and guts to make it right."
For Edwards, this has been his driving distinction from Clinton, who has never said her vote to authorize military action in Iraq was a mistake.
At the Democratic debate on Sept. 26, 2007 Edwards brought it up again while criticizing her for voting to designate the Iranian Republican Guard as a terrorist organization. "I voted for this war in Iraq, and I was wrong to vote for this war. And I accept responsibility for that. Sen. Clinton also voted for this war."
Clinton addressed the "Were you wrong?" question most recently when NBC's Tim Russert asked on Meet the Press on Sept. 23, 2007 if she still thought her vote was in the best interests of the country. She said: "I cast a sincere vote based on my assessment at the time, and I take responsibility for that vote. … Now obviously, if I had known then what I know now about what the president would do with the authority that was given him, I would not have voted the way that I did."
Max Bergmann, a research associate at the Center for American Progress, a center-left think tank in Washington, D.C. said Clinton may not have gone as far rhetorically as Edwards. But she has done two things that Democratic primary voters want to see.
"They want to see candidates take positions to end the war, and they want to see contrition from those who voted for the war. I think that's been satisfied, even from Sen. Clinton," he said.
As time has gone by, Clinton has urged more and more forcefully for withdrawal. During the most recent debate, she said, she would begin redeployment immediately if elected. Nevertheless, Clinton resists setting deadlines or timetables for withdrawal.
Obama likewise resists hard deadlines for withdrawal, and in that respect he and Clinton have started at different points but ended up with similar positions, said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow with The Brookings Institution, an independent research organization. (O'Hanlon has supported Clinton in the past but is neutral in the 2008 race.)
"Both are trying to establish a default position that we are leaving Iraq, but both are trying to preserve their flexibility, given the stakes we are dealing with," O'Hanlon said.
Other candidates are using those positions as a convenient contrast to show how much faster or more thoroughly they want to withdraw. The toughest anti-Iraq positions in the field belong to Bill Richardson and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who voted against authorizing military action in Iraq. Richardson wants all troops out of Iraq within six to twelve months, a deadline that would necessitate abandoning light equipment.
Richardson says he is the only major candidate to urge the withdrawal of all troops, not leaving behind any residual forces. His use of the word "major" is in part to distinguish himself from Kucinich, who has long advocated a prompt withdrawal of U.S. troops to replaced by international peace keepers.
Kucinich has yet to attract polls numbers to make him a top candidate, but neither has Richardson. In contrast, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards would leave residual forces as peacekeepers or to forestall Al Qaeda's ability to regroup.
Recently, Richardson released a commercial of Democratic bloggers praising the thoroughness of his anti-war position.
"It makes his message more distinctive," O'Hanlon said. "But I don't think he's going to have near enough traction to move up on that issue alone."
Richardson came to his position later than some of his competitors. He supported Bush's decision to go to war, and as late as November 2005 he said troops need to remain to secure the country.
Nevertheless, Bergmann said Richardson's change of heart isn't necessarily a purely political move. "I think he genuinely believes that U.S. forces aren't going to be able to achieve anything substantial or significant at the level of a residual force," he said.
The rest of the Democratic candidates have sought to distinguish themselves in other ways. Biden released a detailed plan last year that includes creating a decentralized government and a gradual drawdown of troops. An amendment he offered in the Senate last week promoting the decentralization part of his plan won 75 votes, including Clinton and Dodd. (Obama was absent.) Chris Dodd has touted his anti-war bona fides by pushing for a withdrawal timetable in the Senate.
Kucinich is joined, though to a lesser extent, by Mike Gravel as the most thoroughly anti-war. Kucinich wants a withdrawal of troops and says Iraqis should be paid reparations.
"Dennis Kucinich is not going to win," Bergmann said. "But he is a serious Democratic candidate for president in that he's representing a lot of people who are outraged about the war, people who feel like they were misled and lied to."
But as the candidates sort through their gradations of difference on how much they oppose the war, Rothenberg isn't so sure it's going to amount to much for voters in the party primaries. He said issues of leadership and experience tend to matter more.
"Are caucus attendees and voters going to make distinctions among the candidates based on their differences on Iraq?" Rothenberg said. "Count me as skeptical."
Joe Biden: Campaign Web site on Iraq.
Joe Biden: Senate Web site on Iraq.
Hillary Clinton: Campaign Web site on Iraq.
Hillary Clinton: Senate Web site on Iraq.
Chris Dodd: Campaign Web site on Iraq.
Chris Dodd: Senate Web site on Iraq.
John Edwards: Campaign Web site on Iraq.
Mike Gravel: Campaign Web site on Iraq.
Dennis Kucinich: Campaign Web site on Iraq.
Dennis Kucinich: House Web site on Iraq.
Barack Obama: Campaign Web site on Iraq.
Barack Obama: Senate Web site on Iraq.
Barack Obama: Sept. 12, 2007 position paper on Iraq.
Bill Richardson: Campaign web site on Iraq.
House vote on authorizing force in Iraq, Oct. 10, 2002.
Senate vote on authorizing force in Iraq, Oct. 11, 2002.
Chicago Daily Herald, "300 attend rally against Iraq war," Oct. 3, 2002.
Chicago Sun-Times, "Postwar Iraq splits Dem hopefuls," Nov. 13, 2003.
CNN, Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, July 25, 2004.
Chicago Tribune, "Obama's a star who doesn't stick to the script," July 27, 2004.
Chicago Tribune, "Obama, Keyes put on kid gloves," Oct. 13, 2004.
John Edwards, The Right Way in Iraq, Nov. 13, 2005.
Chicago Tribune, "Obama: Pull GIs from Iraq gradually," Nov. 23, 2005.
Bill Richardson,Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life, published Nov. 3, 2005.
Senate vote on setting a deadline for Iraq funding, May 16, 2007.
CNN, Transcript of Democratic Presidential debate, July 23, 2007
Senate vote on troop withdrawals, June 22, 2006.
Bill Richardson, The Choice on Iraq, Sept. 25, 2007.
MSNBC, Transcript of Democratic Presidential debate, Sept. 26, 2007
Interview with Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report.
Interview with Max Bergmann of Center for American Progress.
Interview with Michael O'Hanlon of The Brookings Institution.