by John Tarleton
Imagine this scenario: It’s your second presidential campaign. You have been running for the job almost non-stop for five years. You’ve reinvented yourself as a left-of-center populist and have staked all your hopes on winning the Iowa caucuses where you have had success in the past. You’ve raised $30 million but that’s only a fraction of what your two leading celebrity opponents have generated. With Judgment Day fast approaching you are running a close third but the momentum seems to be shifting away from you. What do you do?
For John Edwards, the answer is to throw a Hail Mary to the party’s activist base by becoming the first “top-tier” presidential candidate to call for rapid withdrawal of almost all U.S. forces from Iraq. Like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Edwards has supported keeping tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq at least until 2013. But now, this morning’s New York Times reports Edwards saying that he would remove all but a token force of U.S. troops within the first 10 months of his administration
“We are propping up their bad behavior,” he says in an interview with Times military correspondent Michael Gordon. “I mean really, how many American lives and how much American taxpayer money are we going to continue to expend waiting for these [Iraqi] political leaders to do something?”
With Iowans scheduled to caucus tomorrow and the latest polls showing voters breaking toward Obama, Edwards’ new position seems like a transparent ploy to assert his antiwar street cred. Obama, after all, never tires of reminding voters that he publicly opposed going to war in 2002 while Edwards and Clinton voted for it when they were both in the U.S. Senate.
Edwards last-minute stance against continuing the occupation also appears to be calculated to better position himself to receive the “second preference” votes of supporters of Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson, second-tier candidates who have both called for rapid withdrawal but who have little chance of reaching the 15 percent threshold required to be “viable” under the caucus rules used by Iowa Democrats. Edwards’ ability to scoop up second-preference votes helped propel him to a strong second-place showing behind John Kerry in the 2004 Iowa caucuses.
Edwards’ new position breaks with Democratic Party orthodoxy, which is to criticize the war fiercely but not propose any clear plan for ending it. If Edwards somehow prevails in Iowa and is able to run deeper into the primary season, his new stance will force a long overdue debate within the ranks of the Democratic Party about the future of the occupation.
Of course, this begs the question of why Edwards didn’t speak out sooner.
And given Edwards’ shifting positions on the war over the years, it’s not hard to picture him “revising” his stance again in the future should he come under intense pressure from Democratic Party centrists and the national security establishment to fall back in line with the status quo position that “our vital interests” require that the U.S. stays in Iraq for a long, long time to come.
The Times’ other front page story from Iowa today offers an intriguing glimpse into how stories that are blindingly obvious suddenly become “news”.
In her article, “Caucuses Give Iowa Influence, But Many Iowans Are Left Out”, Times reporter Jodi Kantor interviews a National Guard reservist, a single mom, a hospital emergency room worker and a waiter who all will be unable to participate in Thursday night’s caucuses as well as various politicos and analysts who alternately lament and defend the caucus process that creates so many obstacles to people participating.
“Iowans begin the presidential selection process, making choices among the candidates that can heavily influence how the race unfolds,” Kantor writes. “Now some are starting to ask why the first, crucial step in that process is also one that discourages so many people, especially working class people, from participating.”
So, why are “some” people “starting to ask” questions about the caucuses?
Recent comments by Ohio governor (and Hillary surrogate) Ted Strickland disparaging the caucuses as “hugely undemocratic” because it “excludes so many people” may well be the catalyst.
The most undemocratic feature of our electoral system is the power held by the super-wealthy who finance the major candidates and have a disproportionate influence over whoever ends up winning. Nonetheless, the undemocratic nature of the Iowa caucuses is scandalous and it’s hardly new. Iowa is over 90 percent white and, according to the Times article, of the 2.9 million people who live in Iowa only 59,000 Democrats and 87,000 Republicans participated in the 2000 caucuses, the last year both parties held caucuses. In 2004, the Democrats caucused and 124,000 people participated, or about 1/20th the total population of Brooklyn.
The sanctity of the Iowa caucuses goes unquestioned because leading politicians from both party dare not raise the topic for fear of offending Iowans and major media like the Times don’t see stories like this as “news” until someone in a position of power validates it.
Ted Strickland didn’t do Hillary (or his own vice-presidential ambitions) any favors with his comments but hopefully his candor will spark a larger debate about one whether a small, unrepresentative slice of voters from one state should play such an outsized role in selecting who will occupy the White House.