Huffpost Politics
Amanda Terkel Headshot
Ryan Grim Headshot

Ten Years In, Afghanistan War Barely An Issue In 2010 Campaign

Posted: Updated:

WASHINGTON -- With the American public increasingly souring on the nearly decade-long war in Afghanistan, voters tossed out one of the conflict's leading critics after a campaign that barely touched on the issue. Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration asked Congress for an unprecedented expansion of law enforcement agencies' surveillance and intelligence-gathering powers. The hastily passed USA PATRIOT Act eventually became one of the Bush administration's most controversial pieces of legislation, criticized by one civil liberties group as among "the most significant threats to civil liberties, privacy and democratic traditions in U.S. history."

In 2001, just one U.S. senator voted against the legislation: Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). This vote, combined with his opposition to the war in Iraq and his growing concern over the situation in Afghanistan, secured his place as one of the progressive community's most respected voices on foreign policy issues. Yet during his 2010 reelection race, in which he lost to Republican Ron Johnson, foreign policy and the war in Afghanistan were basically never mentioned.

"I don't recall it coming up in the debates at all," said David Canon, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, of the war that Obama has made his own. "I don't really remember seeing any reference to it in any of the ads. So I don't think it really played a role at all. It was definitely about the economy, about jobs, a little bit about health care, but Afghanistan really didn't come up. The issue on most people's mind was the economy."

Last year, Feingold repeatedly expressed skepticism about sending more troops to Afghanistan, worried that it would lead to a further destabilization of the situation in Pakistan. In May 2009, Feingold questioned President Obama's then-point person on the conflict, Richard Holbrooke, about the issue.

"[Y]ou're absolutely correct that -- that an additional amount of American troops, and particularly if they're successful in Helmand and Kandahar, could end up creating a pressure in Pakistan which would add to the instability," said Holbrooke. "I raised that issue as soon as the troop discussions began at the White House, and I was not alone in raising it."

There were, of course, many reasons why the three-term senator was unable to beat back his opponent, who -- like many other Republican challengers around the country in 2010 -- ran on a campaign of battling entrenched Washington institutions. Wisconsin suffered from an especially severe Democratic enthusiasm gap and Johnson received the generous support of independent groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (Feingold's staff told HuffPost that the senator, meanwhile, discouraged outside spending on his behalf, even though he was one of the top targets of conservatives, though groups such as MoveOn.org did make reelecting him a priority.)

Still, with many members of the public increasingly raising questions about the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, the war barely penetrated the campaign.

A staffer with the Democratic Party of Wisconsin who worked closely with the Feingold team toward the end of the cycle said they never remember Afghanistan being mentioned in the campaign headquarters. They added that there was a sense in the office of resignation; they were running a principled campaign that was ultimately going to lose.

"You expect to go out there, and you expect people to be fighting alongside you and that people are going to fight for someone they really believe in," said the staffer. "And you got the sense that they totally believed in him, but they absolutely didn't believe in his ability to win."

In his first interview since the loss, Feingold told HuffPost last week that he tried to mention it whenever he could, but it was tough to break through the discussion of economic issues -- which is exactly what Republicans were trying to accomplish.

"Whenever I could, I brought it up," he said. "It was one of the few issues where there was almost consensus of skepticism about the wisdom of continuing with the troop build up and the heavy involvement there. ... It was very difficult to have a lot of attention to that because of the economy, and effectively the effort on the part of those on the other side to restrict the discussion only to certain economic issues, which puts a barrier up. As a result, foreign policy related questions weren't seriously discussed in most campaigns and I think that's dangerous for this country."

A Democratic strategist with experience in the Midwest agreed that foreign policy was kept out of the debate in the midterm elections, the first time in a decade it has been that way.

"It's kind of remarkable, when you think about it," said the strategist. "We're in our 10th year in Afghanistan, and for there not to be a debate of the issue is pretty remarkable. It's not exactly similar, but it's as if in 1972, the Vietnam War wouldn't have been an issue in the campaign. It's clearly a complicated issue. So there are no easy answers. But you'd think in a big national election, the 10-year war would have a higher profile in the elections and the campaigns, but it just didn't."

As a result of the focus on economic issues, Johnson was really never forced to come up with a detailed stance on Afghanistan, mostly saying that he trusted Gen. David Petraeus to do the right thing.

"[O]ne of the finest generals we have in the military right now is David Petraeus," Johnson told a Wisconsin blog in July. "So I'm hoping General Petraeus can, you know, pull a rabbit out of a hat on this one. Obviously, I'm very concerned about President Obama, the way he even announced the strategy, the fact that he announces the surge and the next sentence after that, he says, 'Oh, by the way, we're going to pull out in 16 months.' To me, the Taliban strategy is to surge 16 months and a day."

Johnson even went so far as to say that publicly calling for withdrawal harms the U.S. military. "[To] come out and start demanding a U.S. pullout and that kind of thing in public, it just undermines what our troops are trying to do," he said last summer. "That's not saying if you have real grave concerns as a member of Congress you should not be talking to the administration. It's just extremely harmful to our nation when it's all done in public."

HuffPost contacted several aides who worked with the Johnson campaign but did not receive a reply.

When asked what lessons anti-war advocates can learn from his campaign, Feingold said he would be speaking about that issue soon, although not on the Senate floor.

Lucia Graves contributed reporting.

UPDATE, 11:06 a.m.: In November, the unemployment rate in Wisconsin was 7.6 percent and falling, down from 8.6 percent in November 2009. The national jobless rate was 9.8 percent.