What should have been a watershed moment in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination occurred last month in a debate sponsored by MSNBC in which moderator Tim Russert asked the candidates if they would "...pledge that by January 2013, the end of your first term, more than five years from now, there will be no U.S. troops in Iraq."
What came next from the media-anointed "leaders" in the Democratic field was a festival of ass-covering and hedging in which Hillary Clinton said that "it is very difficult to know what we're going to be inheriting" in backing away from the pledge, Barack Obama opined that "it's hard to project four years from now" in refusing to commit and John Edwards flat-out said "I cannot make that commitment."
Bear in mind that Russert was not asking if the presidential contenders would advocate withdrawing troops that week, the following month or even sometime in 2008. He was simply asking if they would commit to ending a war that has nothing to do with America's national security -- except in making us demonstrably less safe -- is killing our troops, bankrupting our nation and destroying our global reputation and if they would do that within the next half a decade.
Cue crickets chirping and silence from the three primary-poll leaders.
Russert then turned to Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut and said flatly "I want to put you on the record. Will you pledge, as Commander-in-Chief, that you'll have all troops out of Iraq by January of 2013?"
"I will get that done," said Dodd firmly.
"You'll get it done?" clarified Russert.
"Yes, I will, sir," said Dodd.
Period. End of story.
Dodd pointed out after that debate that the most "remarkable" thing about the response to Russert's direct question was that, "The so-called leading candidates were unwilling to say whether they would have our troops out of that country by 2013."
"The idea that we could be embroiled in combat for at least another five years should set off alarm bells for anyone with a modicum of foreign policy experience," said Dodd. "Sacrificing American lives to engage in a civil war is a deeply corrupt strategy and one I have been working to combat in Congress. I call on my fellow candidates to help me bring an end to this war long before 2013 - we need to end this war now before it passes Vietnam as the longest war in American history."
Perhaps it's a dismal sign of how unaccustomed we've become to presidential-like leadership that we don't recognize it when it slaps us in the face, but his firm stance on Iraq and many other reasons make it obvious to me that Chris Dodd should be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008.
In addition to saying unequivocally that he will get our troops out of Iraq when he assumes the role of Commander-in-Chief, Dodd has voted for troop withdrawals at every opportunity since Democrats took control of Congress in January and has been a leader in all efforts to end the Iraq quagmire.
But Dodd has been at his best most recently in showing immense leadership and the truest understanding of our nation's meaning in standing strong against attempts by the Bush administration to let telecommunications companies off the hook for aiding and abetting the White House in their illegal domestic spying on American citizens. Despite little support from his Senate colleagues and eerie initial silence from his fellow presidential candidates, Dodd came out and said last week that he would place a Senatorial "hold" on any bill granting immunity to companies that have assisted George W. Bush in spying on Americans without required warrants and announced that he would filibuster any such legislation to keep it from passing.
Here's Dodd on the Senate floor on Friday:
"While it may be true that the proposed legislation is an improvement on existing law, it remains fundamentally flawed because it fails to protect the privacy rights of Americans or hold the Executive or the private sector accountable if they choose to ignore the law.
"That is why I will not stand on the floor of the United States Senate and be silent about the direction we are headed.
"It is time to say 'no more.' No more trampling our Constitution. No more excusing those who violate the rule of law. These are our principles. They have been around at least since the Magna Carta. They are enduring.
"What they are not is temporary. And what we do not do in a time where our country is at risk is abandon them." "The right of privacy and the Constitution don't belong to any candidate, or belong to any political party," said Dodd in Iowa last week, when speaking of the need for anyone wanting to be president to understand our country's principles. "It's incumbent upon all of us to stand up when those rights are being jeopardized and that's what I intend to be doing over the coming days here, depending upon the outcome of this process, moving through the United States Senate."
As Glenn Greenwald said in Salon last week, Dodd is showing leadership and the will to back up his rhetoric at a time when the very foundation on which our country was conceived is being gutted.
Wrote Greenwald: "Dodd is not the planet's greatest orator and is never going to be. But he has something, at least right now, that is far more important: authenticity and passion about defending the Constitution and the rule of law, along with the resolve to accompany those convictions with action, even if it risks alienating his 'friends and colleagues,' in the oh-so-august Senate."
Greenwald also implies the key question all Democratic voters need to ask as the primary-voting months draw near: What the hell is with the deafening silence coming out of the Clinton and Obama camps on the subject of domestic spying and trampling on Americans' Constitutional rights?
"Contrast Dodd's leadership and conviction on this matter with the complete passivity and invisibility of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama," writes Greenwald. "Whatever that is, it's the opposite of leadership. And it is this passivity and amorphous, shapeless, inspiration-free invisibility that has come increasingly to characterize both of their campaigns, along with the leadership of their party."
And as one who has covered the Senate for a few years, I can tell you without hesitation that Dodd's leadership and steadfast loyalty to Progressive ideals and doing the right thing did not begin when he announced his presidential campaign this year.
The Connecticut Senator has long championed increased funding for emergency first responders and, in 2005, authored and fought for legislation that would have funded "...urgent priorities for our Nation's firefighters, law enforcement personnel and emergency medical personnel." Dodd's bill was killed by the Republican Senate but he kept pushing for similar legislation to bolster domestic security for the remainder of the 109th Congress.
On judicial oversight, Dodd helped lead a small number of Democratic Senators who attempted to block Bush's nomination of Samuel Alito to be the next right-wing hack on the Supreme Court, saying of the ultra-conservative Alito that "his legal philosophy is outside the mainstream. That philosophy has caused him to support dramatic new powers for the government and fewer rights for ordinary citizens. In Judge Alito's America, the President would act with radical new powers -- unchecked by either the Congress or the courts as envisioned by the framers of our constitution."
In March of 2006, Dodd stood with Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) in filibustering the USA Patriot Act renewal.
Clinton and Obama? They voted against Feingold and Dodd's attempts to keep the Bush-Cheney-Rove axis from further making the Founding Fathers spin in their graves.
Later in 2006, Dodd stepped up to the plate again, authoring the Effective Terrorists Prosecution Act, which sought to neuter Bush's awful Military Commission Act and restore some of the moral authority America lost with the rest of the world when it gave the White House the sweeping ability to breach civil liberties in a manner more like a dictatorship than a democracy.
"It's clear the people who perpetrated these horrendous crimes against our country and our people have no moral compass and deserve to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," said Dodd in speaking for his bill, which also would have restored Habeas Corpus rights. "But in taking away their legal rights, the rights first codified in our country's Constitution, we're taking away our own moral compass, as well."
On domestic issues, Dodd has been on the front lines with Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) in leading the fight for a minimum wage increase, full funding of the Head Start program and in making college more affordable for middle-class and low-income families. What many voters also don't know is that, despite its passage being attributed to newly-elected Bill Clinton in 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act -- one of the most popular and substantial pieces of social legislation in decades -- was written by Dodd and promoted by him long before it was finally passed.
And while Republicans boast about supporting the troops when their actions are so often contrary to those hollow claims, Dodd has led in those battles as well, authoring legislation in March to provide $38 billion to restore National Guard readiness -- both for Iraq combat and for preparedness to address large-scale domestic emergencies by providing Guard troops with the equipment they have lacked under Team Bush and that's been depleted by ongoing Iraq deployments.
Finally, after years of having a president who either directly causes national problems or who reacts badly when they occur -- Hurricane Katrina, anyone? -- most Americans are ready for a Chief Executive who actually sees difficulties coming and takes action in advance.
While the whole country was aghast this year at the discovery of inhumane conditions encountered by returning troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, it was Dodd who a full year before proposed a measure that, had it not been defeated by the Republican majority, would have provided additional funding to shore up the failing infrastructures at Veterans hospitals all over the country, including Walter Reed.
Said Dodd back in February of 2006: "We know last year that over 100,000 Iraqi veterans returned home. Yet the administration's fiscal year 2006 budget for the VA was only prepared to handle 23,000 veterans. There are shortfalls in every state across the country. There are shortfalls in private facilities as well as public ones. This amendment is for us finally to say let's do something for these people."
Again, for those of us who have forgotten, this is what real leadership looks like.
So as you prepare to watch the latest Democratic presidential debate tonight, try to stay away from asking if Barack Obama sounded strong enough, if Hillary Clinton stumbled and lost some of her polling lead or if John Edwards did anything to close the gap.
Instead, take a longer look at Dodd, who consistently leads in a way that voters should demand of the person who wants to be the next president.
We've lived with George W. Bush for many terrible years and America is in very perilous times as a nation, both in national security terms and in the degree of damage being done daily to our heritage, creed and reputation in the world. It is insane for we as voters to do anything but look at presidential candidates very carefully and see how they stack up when viewed through that prism and how their deeds match their words.
Nobody should base a presidential vote on who the media is telling them will be elected; we should each make our choice based on who we believe should be elected.
And Senator Chris Dodd has earned my vote.
You can reach Bob Geiger at email@example.com