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Iraq War Politics: Past, Present and Future

Over the last few months we've been closely monitoring the positioning of the Democrats' Big 3 -- Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards -- on the war in Iraq.

It's become clear that they see the war through entirely different frames -- the past, the present and the future.

For Obama it is the past -- specifically his initial opposition to the war in Iraq in 2002 -- that matters most in this debate. For Edwards it is the present and his leadership in the push to cut off funding to bring the war to an end. For Clinton it is the future, specifically her unique ability to find a responsible way out of the conflict.

Elections are all about framing issues for potential voters. Take national security. In 2002 and 2004 Democrats largely sought to frame the election around domestic issues, while attempting to blunt the perceived Republican advantage in keeping Americans safe. In 2006 as Democrats were much more aggressive on national security issues, using dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq to challenge the traditional GOP advantage on security issues. With that pillar of electoral strength diminished, Republicans watched as their majorities crumbled.

The framing of the war in Iraq is critical when it comes to the 2008 election. It will be THE issue for a majority of Democratic voters and each of the Big 3 is hoping that the electorate will see the war through his (or her) preferred frame.

Here's a deeper look at each candidate's positioning on the war and how it explains their broader political philosophy heading into 2008.

Obama (Past): Obama's campaign believes his most important act in public life came in the fall of 2002 when he opposed the war in Iraq. "I opposed this war from the start," Obama told Edwards at last week's debate in New Hampshire. "You're about 4 1/2 years late on leadership on this issue." Obama wants to make sure that every single Democratic voter knows that he alone of the top three candidates opposed the war at its start. To Obama, that decision distinguishes him from everything that has come after it. He was right, Clinton and Edwards were wrong. Making the right choice on big issues is the crucial component of being president, argue Obama allies, and he got the biggest decision in recent memory right. Everything other decision on the war since has paled in comparison.

Edwards (Present): Apologies are a dime a dozen in politics but Edwards' decision to admit he was wrong for voting for the 2002 use of force resolution continues to resonate 18 months after he first wrote it in the pages of the Post. For Edwards, that apology cleaned his political slate on the issue -- signaling that he knew he must start over when it came to the war in Iraq. And, everything he has done since that November 2005 apology has been centered on bringing the conflict to a rapid end. He has raised his rhetoric over the past month or so, running ads in Washington and Iowa calling on Congress to refuse any pressure to accede to President Bush's wishes when it comes to funding the war. He called the recent vote on funding the troops a "moment of truth" and, in spite of the fact that Obama and Clinton opposed the measure, Edwards sought to highlight their alleged lack of leadership on the issue. "There is a difference between leadership and legislating," he said during the second Democratic debate earlier this month. For Edwards, the past is less important than the present. His mistake of 2002 has been acknowledged. The time is now for real change in the Iraq policy.

Clinton (Future): None of the Big 3 has being more loudly criticized within the party over the war than Clinton. Unlike Obama, she supported the war at its start, And, unlike Edwards she has refused to apologize for that initial support. Instead Clinton (and her campaign team) has pursued a two-track strategy in regard to the war: blur the differences between the candidates' past positions while painting her as the candidate best able to lead on the issue in the future. The Clinton team argues that since Obama arrived in the Senate the two candidates have voted in lock step when it comes to Iraq. (On the recent funding vote, the imagery of Clinton casting her "nay" less than a minute after Obama did the same created a powerful visual about her campaign's commitment to leaving no room between the two on this issue.) And, on the campaign trail, Clinton regularly looks to January 2009 when it comes to the war. "If George Bush doesn't end this war before he leaves office...when I'm president, I will," Clinton says on the stump -- always to huge applause. Clinton's argument is that no matter the mistakes committed in the past, and no matter the struggles to tie the President's hands in the present, the future represents the country's best hope to bring an end to the war. Only by electing a Democrat to the White House in 2008 (presumably Clinton herself) can the party -- and the country as a whole -- expect real change to come in Iraq.

Which matters most to you when it comes the war in Iraq? The 2002 vote on the use of force resolution (past), the fight over how Congress can limit the scope of the war (present) or what is to come in 2008 and beyond (future)?

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 10, 2007; 7:39 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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