Call it whatever you want – a moderate/liberal split, a realist/purist split – but the bottom line is that the Democrats, as always, remain divided over how best to stand up to President Bush. This was glaringly obvious this morning, as a succession of ’08 presidential hopefuls auditioned in front of Democratic National Committee members at the party’s annual winter confab in Washington.
At issue right now is the pending Senate resolution - hatched primarily by Republican John Warner and now endorsed by Democrat Carl Levin, with considerable backing from Levin’s colleagues – that seeks to criticize Bush for his Iraq escalation plan. This resolution, slated for debate next week, would signal symbolic opposition to Bush (a milestone of sorts, given the Senate’s timidity over the past five years), but it doesn’t compel Bush to change his ways, nor does it suggest alternatives to the Surge, such as reductions of U.S. troop levels over time.
Sensing perhaps that antiwar Democratic voters in early primary states will consider the resolution to be an exercise in spinelessness, several of the candidates today sought to characterize the resolution is those terms. Connecticut senator and long-shot candidate Chris Dodd said that, in the wake of the ’06 midterm elections that served as a thumbs-down referendum on Bush’s war performance, Americans deserve more than symbolic senatorial dissent. Actually, Dodd was blunter yesterday, during an interview with The Hartford Courant: “(The resolution) will not send a message to the White House. They intend to ignore whatever we do. Why not force them to pay attention to what we do (by enacting a substantive bill)? This is the U.S. Senate. This is not a City Council somewhere."
This is a good issue for a candidate who wants to plant his flag on the party’s left flank. Markos Moulitsas, the blogging impresario at Daily Kos, is assailing the resolution this way: “Kill this piece of crap dead….Let’s make a real statement on the war, not empty platitudes and rhetoric.”
Which brings us to candidate John Edwards, the former one-term senator, who followed Dodd this morning: “It is a betrayal not to stop this president’s plan to escalate the war when we have the responsibility, the power, and the ability to stop it. We cannot be satisfied with passing non-binding resolutions that we know this president will ignore. We have the power to stop the escalation of this war…Opposing this escalation with all the vigor and tools we have is a test of our political courage.”
But, shortly thereafter, the message from Hillary Clinton was very different. It may have been my imagination, but I get the feeling that she sees herself as a workhorse, and the flashier Edwards as merely a showhorse who could use a few lessons in practical politics. Clinton praised the impending “resolution of disapproval,” and said: “There are many people who wish we could do more, 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 have said no to President Bush, and began to reverse his policies.”
Moments later, she pointed out that the Senate Democrats barely have a majority, which means that they must “create coalitions,” and collect the 60 votes necessary to block Republican filibusters, in order to get anything done. She said: “Believe me, I understand the frustration and the outrage. You have to have 60 votes to cap troops, to limit funding, to do anything…” She just as easily could have said that Democrats actually need 67 votes, to sustain any Bush veto.
She did feel the need, however, to nod leftward several times, promising that she would end the war if elected, that she would like to see the troop levels capped now, and that she’d like to warn the Iraqi army to shape up now or lose its U.S. financial assistance. She was, after all, outflanked on the left this morning not just by Dodd and Edwards, but by Barack Obama, who reminded everyone that he (unlike certain unnamed rivals) had opposed the Iraq war “publicly, frequently, consistently before the war began.”
It’s a crowded chessboard; as I noted here the other day, candidate Joe Biden, perhaps seeking to stake out ground as a sensible centrist, has already attacked Edwards for the latter’s troop pullout proposal. All told, it will be fascinating next week, during the resolution debate, to hear not so much what Senate Democrats say about the Bush war team (predictable stuff), but what they are prepared to say (albeit indirectly) about each other.
One final thought: There was one eye-rolling moment at the close of Dodd’s pitch this morning. He said that he has young kids, and that one daughter is five years old. He started to tell a story about how she was dressing for school the other day….and I just knew (from long experience) that we were heading for another Amy Carter Moment.
Back in 1980, as President Carter neared the end of his debate with challenger Ronald Reagan, he said this: “I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry -- and the control of nuclear arms." Amy was 12 at the time. Most people who saw the debate thought Carter looked foolish playing the Dad card, putting forth his daughter as the font of wonky wisdom.
Anyway, Dodd told his story today: “…She said to me, in exactly these words, ‘Daddy, what sort of life do you think I’m going to have?’”
And I thought: Either he was making up that quote, because it was just too perfect…Or she really did say it, whereupon he clicked into candidate mode and told himself, "I’m gonna use that." Either way, it doesn’t speak well for the Dad card.