Dan Balz's Take
Clinton and Obama, At War Over War's End
Barack Obama returned to Iowa today to lay out his newest plan to end the war in Iraq -- and to step up his sparring with Hillary Clinton. The question is whether the new policy adds up to a surge strategy for his campaign.
No issue better highlights the arc of the Democratic nomination contest than the competition over the campaign's dominant issue. Obama and Clinton have circled one another throughout the year, matching Senate vote against vote and trying to trump one proposal against another proposal.
They were, as everyone knows, the last two to cast their votes on an Iraq funding bill that lacked a withdrawal timetable -- with both voting against the money. Neither likely would have done so were it not for their campaign competition.
Today they were circling one another again. As Obama prepared to speak in Iowa, Clinton's office released a letter she was sending to President Bush. Clinton sought to preempt both Obama and the president.
She told Bush that a plan to reduce U.S. force levels by 30,000 a year from now -- which Bush is expected to announce Thursday night -- is "too little too late, and unacceptable to this Congress, and to the American people who have made clear their strong desire to bring our troops home, and end this war." She also urged an accelerated timetable for withdrawal.
Obama's new plan contains four elements, the most significant of which is a timetable that would result in the withdrawal of all combat forces by the end of 2008. Obama also calls for a new constitutional convention for Iraq designed to force political reconciliation on the competing factions there. His plan further includes initiatives aimed at ensuring regional security and preventing humanitarian disaster after the withdrawal.
Obama's central disagreement with Clinton, however, is summed up in this paragraph from excerpts his campaign sent out early today.
"I opposed this war from the beginning," he said. "I opposed the war in 2002. I opposed it in 2003. I opposed it in 2004. I opposed it in 2005. I opposed it in 2006. I introduced a plan in January to remove all of our combat troops by next March. And I am here to say that we have to begin to end this war now."
In his prepared remarks, Obama blamed "conventional thinking in Washington" for the support Bush received from Congress in 2002. Clinton of course was among those alleged conventional thinkers who backed the 2002 war resolution. "Despite -- or perhaps because of how much experience they had in Washington -- too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask hard questions," Obama said.
Obama's new timetable for withdrawing combat troops is more explicit than anything Clinton has personally proposed. His call for stepped up diplomatic efforts and United Nations involvement is similar to ideas Clinton advanced when she outlined her future-of-Iraq policy in a July speech in Iowa.
The entire Democratic field is playing a game of oneupsmanship on Iraq. John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson and Joe Biden have strong and well-articulated views that differ with Clinton and Obama is some important ways and they are doing everything they can not to allow the Iraq debate within the party to become a two-person conversation.
But Clinton's campaign long has kept Obama in its focus for two reasons. He is the lone candidate among the big six who did oppose the war before it started, and he is the lone candidate who has out-muscled the mighty Clinton fundraising machine in the first two quarters of the year
Neither of those two assets, however, has helped Obama move the polls. The evidence over many months is that Clinton's support for the war resolution in 2002 has done only minimal damage to her candidacy. Some Democrats cannot forgive her that vote, but overall, there is no large chorus calling on her to apologize, and among war critics, she leads the Democratic field.
The newest Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Clinton does equally well among those Democrats who favor an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq and among those who favor a more measured withdrawal.
A new Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll of Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina posed a direct question on Iraq. "Regardless of your choice for president, who do you think would be best at ending the war in Iraq?" Clinton was the clear leader in all three states, doubling Obama's percentage in two and nearly doubling it in the third. However, two in 10 Democrats said they weren't sure who would be best.
Iraq has been critically important to Obama in helping to define his differences with Clinton and in his efforts to argue that a short resume in Washington does not mean he lacks the kind of judgment voters are seeking in a president. But neither of those arguments has translated into increased political support.
The Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg survey showed Obama behind both Clinton and Edwards in Iowa and tied with Edwards in a distant second to Clinton in New Hampshire. Other polls have shown Iowa to be a competitive three-way contest, which is why Clinton, Obama and Edwards are investing so much time and energy in the state.
Obama's campaign looks at the post-Labor Day phase of the campaign as the time to turn a page. The caucuses are still well off and Iowa voters famously examine the candidates for a long, long time before beginning to make final decisions about whom they want as their nominee. Obama needs to be at his best as that time approaches.
Posted at 1:05 PM ET on Sep 12, 2007
Dan Balz's Take
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