Battling the Bully Pulpit
One candidate sent a letter to the president demanding action. Another flew to Iowa to give a speech outlining his new plan for Iraq. A third will actually buy airtime tonight to deliver a rebuttal of sorts after President Bush's speech to the nation on the war.
But let's face it, one thing Bush's 9 p.m. televised address will prove tonight is that no one can compete with the commander in chief for attention.
The Democrats running to replace Bush have a hard enough time drawing the spotlight with eight of them in the race. Standing on those debate stages amid the crowd, the frontrunners invariably look somewhat diminished, one in a crowd, and therefore less presidential. Actually being president means you don't have to share the stage with anyone and you have the Oval Office all to yourself.
Former senator John Edwards (N.C.), though, is trying to sneak onto stage anyway. After Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) responded to Bush's latest plans for Iraq with a letter and a speech respectively yesterday to little notice, Edwards is trying to capture a little of the president's television audience tonight by airing his own two-minute response as a paid advertisement on MSNBC (stepping on the official Democratic response to be delivered by Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed.)
"Unfortunately, the president is pressing on with the only strategy he's ever had -- more time, more troops and more war," Edwards says in the commercial, according to his campaign. Edwards turns Gen. David H. Petraeus's testimony to his advantage, ignoring the Iraq commander's assertion that the troop buildup has helped improve security to focus on the lack of progress toward national reconcililation. "Now, after General Petraeus reports the surge has produced no progress toward a political solution, what does the president want? More time for the surge to work when all of us know it won't."
Edwards goes on to use the ad to distance himself from the frontrunners still serving in the Senate, implicitly chiding them for not being more effective in reversing Bush policy. "They have the power to end this war and you expect them to use it. When the president asks for more money and more time, Congress needs to tell him he only gets one choice -- a firm timeline for withdrawal."
Airing a two-minute ad instead of the usual 30-second variety is not particularly original, but it is unusual to put up such an extended commercial nationally so early in the cycle and to style it as a rebuttal to a presidential speech. In the ad, Edwards sits at a desk speaking into the camera with a flag behind him in a quasi-presidential style intended to mimic an Oval Office address.
Edwards is jousting with Clinton and Obama for the mantle of most antiwar, appealing to the party base that is most angry about the continuing presence in Iraq. This week's testimony by
Clinton wrote Bush yesterday, urging him to "greatly accelerate" the withdrawal of troops and noting that the current plan would only bring force levels a year from now back to where they were a year ago. "Mr. President," she wrote, "that is simply 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."
Obama, speaking in, ahem, Clinton, Iowa, revised his previous Iraq plan, proposing to pull out all U.S. combat forces by the end of 2008 and hold a constitutional convention in Iraq to forge a political settlement among warring factions. "The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq's leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops," he said. "Not in six months or one year -- now."
Of course, even if his campaign is victorious, Obama still won't be president in six months or a year, much less now. If being president means you command the stage while the others squabble around you, it also means you're responsible for whatever happens -- including, and especially, for whatever bad happens. So the Democrats have the luxury of offering their plans for what to do in Iraq without having to worry about them being enacted. It's all about positioning, finding a stance that makes sense politically and outmaneuvers the other candidates.
For those with a realistic chance of winning, it's also about not trapping yourself with words that may come back to haunt you later -- when one of them may be the one in the Oval Office addressing the nation to explain his or her policies.
-- Peter Baker
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