06/02/2005 04:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

MIA at Progressives' Conference: Iraq

I posted the below on my personal blog at But since it references our grand leader at HuffPost (the HuffPost Poohbah?), I've "repurposed" (as I am told they say In Hollywood) the posting by shoving it into my high-priced real estate at the HP blog. Arianna will certainly tell us all more about her daring exploits. If not, demand your money back.

I've spent much of the day at the "Take Back America" conference sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future. This annual shindig has become the major gathering of progressives in Washington, DC. They come to schmooze, grieve, network, plot, and cogitate. Most of the sessions are serious, but somehow I was booked for an event tonight that has been dubbed a "blogfire." It's a panel of bloggers and comics. I don't know which box I should check. I also can't figure which of the two groups--the blogggers or the comics--will be marginalized by association with the other. But I promised. So I will be there. So will C-SPAN, live (8:00 pm, Washington, DC time).

But most of the conference is devoted to more conventional fare: how to build a progressive majority, how to organize in the future, how to win the political and policy debates of the day. What was most interesting about today--Day Two--was the absence of a particular word: Iraq. Former (and current?) presidential aspirant John Edwards addressed a crowd of hundreds at lunch. He talked earnestly (as he does) about the need to help all those sons and daughters of mill workers (and other hardworking Americans) who didn't get the breaks he received as a son of a mill worker. And when it came to foreign policy, he passionately discussed promoting moral values and development abroad. He denigrated a foreign policy that delivers the rhetoric of freedom and not the reality of economic progress and true liberty. Is a six-year-old girl in Sudan really free, he asked, if she goes to bed each day hungry? But throughout his 25-minute-long speech, Edwards did not make a single reference to Iraq. How, you might ask, can anyone speechify about US foreign policy without mentioning Iraq? Well, it's not too difficult. When Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean spoke to the group in the morning, he too said not a word about the war in Iraq.

After Edwards finished and starting working the crowd, one attendee approached him and remarked, "You didn't say anything about Iraq." He looked straight at this woman and replied: "You're right." It was left to Arianna Huffington, the blog-impressario who's launched and who followed Dean, to chide the Democratic Party for ignoring this 300 billion pound gorilla. She especially excoriated Hillary Clinton for commenting that she was not comfortable discussing an "exit strategy" in Iraq. Huffington huffed, "If you are not comfortable setting an exit strategy, please point us to someone who is." (Hillary Clinton was invited to address the conference; she declined the invitation. She did show last year--to introduce George Soros.)

Dean's and Edwards' reluctance to say anything about Iraq echoes (so to speak) the silence of their party's leaders. In Dean's case, that might be understandable. He is the head of the party and represents elected officials who are split on the war. (More than half the Senate Dems voted for the war; about 40 percent of House Dems did the same.) Is it his job to lead the charge when his constituents are divided? Probably not. But this shows why he was not the best person for the DNC post. To do this job, he has had to muzzle himself, and that means progressive Democrats have lost one strong voice of opposition.

Edwards' mumness is less justifiable. He wants to be president? Then he ought to address what has to be considered the number-one issue of the year. (Well, if you don't count the Runaway Bride and the Michael Jackson trial.) Yet his entire presentation was overshadowed by what he did not cover. Afterward, several audience members came up to me to note that Iraq had gone MIA.

The Dems, admittedly, are be in hard spot politically regarding the war. I've written about that previously. (Click here.) And let me leave further discussion of that for another day. What strikes me now is the asymmetry between the left and right on this topic. If you were to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference (the grand meeting of rightwingers in Washington), you undoubtedly would hear many speakers from the platform--particularly Republican leaders--talk supportively about the war without hesitation. And the crowd would be in sync with these speakers. But over on the left, the friendly political leaders who drop by to address the troops avoid Iraq, and the crowd is disappointed and even angry. The bottom line: there is a disconnect in the progressive/Democratic world that does not exist in the conservative/Republican world. As long as that remains, it will likely be harder for the gang here to "take back" America.