Iowa and Iraq

The Iowa caucuses are history and their impact has transformed not only the Democratic presidential contest, but the role that the Iraq war will play in the 2004 elections. For almost one year now, Iraq was an extraordinarily divisive issue among the Democratic candidates. For months, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean stood alone among the leading Democrats in his opposition to President George W. Bush’s drive to war. While Congressman Dennis Kucinich was an even stronger opponent to the war, he never emerged as a leading contender; therefore, it was Dean, and not Kucinich, who drove the debate.

It was at last February’s Democratic National Committee meeting that Dean electrified the Party’s grassroots leaders by challenging not only President Bush’s vague war plans, but also the failure of congressional Democrats to stand up against Administration threats to launch a unilateral, preemptive war. I recall that day vividly because I had, along with Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., introduced a resolution at that meeting calling on Democrats to demand that the White House lay out clearly their plans for the war-its costs, its consequences, and the terms of U.S. commitment after the war. Most of the party’s leaders were hesitant to support our challenge, fearing that in the post 9/11 environment, they might be painted "weak on national defense".

The overwhelming supportive response given to Dean’s speech (and the opposition shown to the speeches given by the other Democratic candidates who had supported the war) was an indication of what was to come. Dean’s campaign was fueled early on by this anti-war sentiment.

Gradually, however, the political dynamic within the party and the country began to change. With the late entrance of former General Wesley Clark into the Democratic contest, Dean clearly no longer stood alone in opposition to the President’s war policy. Even those Democrats, who had supported the congressional resolution that gave Bush the opening to go to war, came to oppose the way Bush conducted the war. By the Fall of 2003, a new Democratic consensus emerged.

At this Fall’s DNC meeting delegates passed an Iraq war resolution that was virtually identical to the one which I had submitted in February of 2003.

With the exception of Senator Joseph Lieberman, most of the leading Democrats expressed their opposition to the Bush doctrine of "unilateral preemption". They all recognize that the United States has a responsibility to help rebuild Iraq but demand that the United States find a way to cede control to the United Nations. They also strongly criticize Bush for using what they describe as "misleading" evidence of weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s imminent threat in order to justify the case for war.

As the position’s of the Democrats merged, Dean struck out to maintain his edge, continually reminding voters that he had been the first to oppose Bush’s plans. And, just last month as the race in Iowa tightened, Dean again, played the Iraq war card. But it was to no avail. The debate had shifted and Democrats were now looking in another direction for leadership.

What was interesting about the Iowa results was that while 75% of Iowa Democrats indicated their opposition to the Iraq war, this anti-war vote did not go to Dean alone. Rather it was split amongst Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Dean-with Kerry receiving the bulk of this group’s support. What swayed the election in Kerry’s direction were those voters who said they wanted a candidate "who had experience" and most important, a candidate "who could beat George Bush".

With President Bush’s poll numbers lagging (the percentage of overall voters who support his reelection is now down to 41 percent) and with most of the Democrats now saying virtually the same thing about Iraq, it appears that what Democrats now want most is someone who can win in November 2004.

As the Democrats now move from Iowa to the rest of the states, the election will no longer be about who was the first one to oppose the war. Dean, for his part, has decided to introduce new themes into his campaign focusing on a more domestic agenda. And the other Democrats, as well, will focus on issues related to their electability and their leadership qualities.

While Lieberman’s strong support for the war and Kucinich’s opposition to any U.S. presence in Iraq describe the two poles of this debate, for the leading Democratic candidates Iraq is no longer a dividing issue. The way President Bush led the nation into war and the way he has handled the post-war occupation, however, remains an issue-one that finds most of the Democrats in agreement and in opposition to the Administration.