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Ignoring Iraq: Why Has it Become the Forgotten Issue of the '08 Race?

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"What if the United States were at war during a presidential election -- and none of the candidates wanted to talk about it?" Good question. It was asked by Noah Feldman in this week's New York Times Magazine. And Time is running a story this week asking: "Will Iraq Return as a Campaign Issue?"

Bush's escalation of troops is now one year old. When it was launched, we were told that the purpose of the so-called surge was to help bring about political reconciliation in Iraq. Clearly, that has not come about.

Yes, a bill designed to reverse Paul Bremer's disastrous policy of de-Baathification just passed the Iraqi parliament. But that's the first of the political benchmarks on which there has been any progress at all. And as Juan Cole explains, it's as likely to further sectarian strife as reduce it.

But the traditional media have bought into the "the surge is working" meme hook, line, and sinker. Time talks about "the success of the U.S. military surge, and "the 'good news' of the surge." And during the pre-New Hampshire Democratic debate, Charlie Gibson repeatedly tried to get the candidates to agree that serious progress has been made. "Are any of you ready to say that the surge has worked?" he all but demanded.

Along with propagating the "surge is working" myth, reporters have hit on a new way of diminishing the importance of the war: pretend like no one cares about it anymore, like it's old news. And they have the poll numbers to prove it! (And we've all seen how accurate poll numbers can be.)

The economy "is now issue of concern number one," announced Wolf Blitzer on Sunday. "More than the war in Iraq, more than the war on terror, more than health care. The economy is the highest concern for Americans, according to our most recent poll." CNN pollster Bill Schneider backed him up: "The number one issue to both Democrats and Republicans is now the economy, clearly in first place over the war in Iraq."

This finding allowed Andrea Mitchell to nostalgically trot out a moldy oldie from 1992. "Remember 'It's the economy, stupid'?" asked Andrea Mitchell over the weekend. "Sixteen years later, the candidates have finally figured out voters are more worried about the economy than Iraq or anything else."

The problem is that even if you want to go strictly by the poll numbers, they are not at all as clear cut as the media would have you believe. Turns out, for example, that the CNN poll separates "the war in Iraq" from "terrorism" -- a ludicrous division, no matter how you feel about the war.

Bush has spent over five years trying to convince us that Iraq is the central battlefront in the war on terror. And opponents of the war point out how Iraq has shifted the focus -- and precious national security resources -- away from fighting terrorism while serving as a prime terrorist recruiting tool. Any way you slice it, Iraq and Terrorism are inextricably linked.

So the CNN poll, which has the economy at 35%, would have Iraq/Terrorism at 34% -- a far cry from the storyline being put out by the media.

A CBS/New York Times poll taken around the same time found a similar result: 25% of those surveyed rated Iraq/Terrorism the most important problem facing America, compared to 23% for Economy/Jobs.

It's a vicious cycle. The candidates treat Iraq as if it's not something that needs to be front and center in the campaign; the media use cloudy poll numbers to reinforce the perception. This in turn reinforces the candidates' resolve to shove the war to the backburner. And, for some reason, Barack Obama (who opposed the war) and John Edwards (who has apologized for his initial support of it) seem as comfortable with this shrunken focus on Iraq as Hillary Clinton (whose stance on the war remains a vulnerability).

But ignoring Iraq would be a disaster for the Democrats -- whoever their nominee turns out to be. Pushing Iraq aside and ceding national security to the GOP while focusing on domestic and economic concerns is the exact game plan the party power-brokers convinced John Kerry to follow in 2004. And we all know how well that turned out.

Democrats need to start talking about Iraq and terrorism again -- and about how the war has made us less safe and less effective in fighting terrorists -- and not shut up about it until the first Tuesday in November.