Friday, September 09, 2005


From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dated 8 September 2005.

Is Feingold's war stance a battle plan for 2008?
Posted: Sept. 8, 2005
Washington - Since he proposed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2006, U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold has met with two reactions within his own party.

The situation looks worse and worse, and Democrats do not look like they have a clear way to go on this. -Sen. Russ Feingold, on Iraq war

I don’t expect any Democratic stampede to set a firm date.- Sen. Joe Biden, on Feingold’s proposal for a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq

One is acclaim from activists, liberals and war critics.

The other is a polite but cold shoulder from the Democratic establishment.

Feingold is almost alone among the party's senators, foreign policy mavens and unofficial 2008 presidential hopefuls in pushing a target date for troop withdrawal.

"He could be either ahead of the curve or a total outlier," one Democratic strategist said last week.

In either case, his stand has obvious implications for his possible dark horse run for the Democratic nomination in 2008.

"Feingold represents the largest share of the Democratic base and how they feel about this issue," Matthew Dowd, strategist for President Bush's 2004 re-election, said in an interview last week.

"It reminds me of what (Howard) Dean did . . . knowing the intensity of the Democratic base on Bush, that whoever took on Bush directly in a vociferous way was going to get a big bump," Dowd said of Dean's unexpected emergence in the Democratic field in 2003.

With rising discontent over the war, Feingold's position may test the public's receptiveness for talk of a troop withdrawal. It also underscores divisions among out-of-power Democrats over Iraq. Those disagreements involve both politics (the party's fear of looking weak or defeatist) and policy: whether stabilizing Iraq and avoiding a quagmire or a failed Iraqi state requires more troops or fewer troops, patience or deadlines.

In an interview Tuesday, Feingold - a longtime critic of the war - said he thinks Democrats have been fearful of discussing withdrawal "because they do not want to take the flak of people saying they are not patriotic, or not interested in the war against terrorism."

He also said that the intense focus in Washington on the disaster along the Gulf of Mexico would make it more difficult to have the kind of debate about Iraq he had hoped to spur. With Hurricane Katrina dominating the news, a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday reported the lowest level of public attention to Iraq since the war started.

"I obviously agree Katrina has to be our top priority at the moment," said Feingold, but "we need to figure out a way to have sustained attention to (Iraq), particularly among Democrats. The situation looks worse and worse, and Democrats do not look like they have a clear way to go on this."

Feingold's call last month for a withdrawal timetable generated a flurry of attention and landed him on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Aug. 21. In the conservative press, it was taken as a sign that Democrats are fracturing over the war.

Like Gene McCarthy?

Columnist Pat Buchanan termed Feingold a present-day Gene McCarthy (the anti-war Democrat of the Vietnam era) and an emerging political headache for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and other Democratic presidential hopefuls who voted for the war and oppose setting a withdrawal date. In a story headlined, "And a dove shall lead them?" the conservative, pro-war Weekly Standard called Feingold "the latest sign that the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party is resurgent."

Among liberal pundits and Internet bloggers, Feingold has been embraced.

"He's gotten a very, very warm reaction from the left-liberal wing of the party," said Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and editor of a left-of-center Web site called The Gadflyer.

"He's clearly differentiating himself in terms of potential vice presidential, presidential opportunities as a pioneer on the Iraq issue," Schaller said.

A leading Democratic pollster, who asked not to be identified, said the fight for the 2008 nomination is "all about Hillary," and "Iraq is the one way to differentiate with Hillary if you're Russ Feingold, or (John) Kerry or whoever."

David Sirota, a liberal activist, former congressional staffer and a vocal critic of the party's Washington establishment, said many grass-roots Democrats are "thrilled" by Feingold's move, which Sirota argued was also "very, very smart" politically.

"I think what will happen is if things continue to go as they are in Iraq, more Democrats will basically move to Feingold's position. . . . At that point he has already in a very high-profile way said to voters in all of America and primary voters, 'I am a leader. I am a guy who took this position,' " said Sirota, who echoes Feingold's argument that Democrats can both be tough on terrorism and support getting out of Iraq.

Few want immediate pullout

Sirota points to polls showing that a majority of Americans think the war made them less safe and support full or partial withdrawal. But Ohio State political scientist John Mueller, who studies war and public opinion, says attitudes toward withdrawal are extremely hard to interpret because poll responses are so dependent on how the question is phrased: People overwhelmingly reject an immediate pullout, while much larger and growing percentages favor withdrawal over time.

Feingold hasn't called for immediate withdrawal. He's proposing a "target" deadline of the end of 2006 for full withdrawal, a date he says is "flexible" to account for changing conditions.

For a variety of reasons, no one in the party's Washington leadership and none of Feingold's Democratic Senate colleagues have pushed so directly for a pullout date. Nor has any major Democrat considering a bid for the White House in 2008.

Unlike Feingold, some of those potential candidates voted for the war in 2002, making it awkward now to advocate withdrawal.

And politically, there are fears of being blamed for sowing the seeds of defeat. Political scientist Byron Shafer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said Feingold's position "is not a winner" for Democrats because it plays into the party's perceived softness on defense.

But there's more than politics at work. Derek Chollet, a Democratic foreign policy analyst and fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the disagreements within the party reflect a broader lack of consensus in Washington, including among Republicans.

"Experts don't agree on what the best way out is. They don't agree on the fundamental questions. What's the nature of insurgency? If we were to leave or go, which would hurt or help?" said Chollet. "Everybody's divided."

Many Senate Democrats view a pullout as impractical and think a withdrawal date would be self-defeating. Among them is Feingold's fellow Wisconsinite, Sen. Herb Kohl.

Delaware's Joe Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview Tuesday that there will be a growing demand by lawmakers in both parties for answers from the administration about its course in Iraq, but "I don't expect any Democratic stampede to set a firm date."

Biden, also a potential '08 candidate, said that most Senate Democrats simply think it would be a bad policy. Biden noted, "in fairness to Russ," that Feingold's own position is more nuanced than sometimes portrayed, since his deadline is flexible.

'Feeding the insurgency'

Feingold disputes the notion that a withdrawal timetable would encourage the enemy. He argues that an open-ended U.S. occupation is a magnet for insurgents, and that a withdrawal date would reduce the "magnet" effect, help defuse the violence and pressure Iraqi political leaders to resolve their internal differences.

"I think what we're doing now is feeding the insurgency," he said last month.

Feingold's stand has drawn some fire from Republicans.

Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Menomonee Falls said that "a statement by one U.S. senator or one congressman can be very easily picked up and misinterpreted by enemies of our country . . . as the consensus of Congress."

State GOP chair Rick Graber called Feingold's position "completely wrongheaded" and said, "I see it as part of a political effort to appeal to the left wing of his party."

Asked Tuesday about the political implications of his stand on Iraq, Feingold said:

"I've made no judgment at all about whether I'm an '08 candidate. And I can assure you my decision to take a position on this had nothing at all to do with whether or not I am interested in being a candidate. . . . It's just too important to make a political calculation about it. There will be political consequences. But I did not calculate this, nor will I calculate this, on the basis of politics."


EconAtheist said...

He didn't test so well in the south, I'm afraid, on that trip to Alabama (I think it was AL.. maybe MS)... really too bad because he's a damned good public official that's not an idealogue.

Great leadership qualities, too.

Grandpa Eddie said...

The south has always had a problem with northern liberals. I don't think Kennedy picked up many votes there in the 1960 election, part of that was due to the fact that he was a catholic.

There's two years 'til then, so I guess we'll have to wait and see if things change.