Watching last night's forum from Dartmouth, I was stunned by the convergence of the top three Democratic presidential candidates on a new target date for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq: 2013. My initial reaction upon hearing that date was that the top tier of the Democratic presidential field had finally swung to Hillary Clinton's frame on Iraq. Clinton's increasing lead at the polls--as well as the growing perception that she is the front-runner--has given her frame on Iraq a new dominance.
In addition, Clinton's front runner status appears to have opened up a contrast between the top tier and the rest of the field with regard to Iraq--but on closer inspection we see that this division also is now dominated by the Clinton frame.
The result is what I would tentatively call a new 'official' Democratic frame on Iraq--the logic through which the party believes it can lead the debate, win the White House and hold the majority in Congress.
Here's a sketch of what that frame appears to be:
[Iraq] is [A War]
Despite efforts by progressives to shift the candidates to see Iraq as an 'occupation,' the Democratic Party has chosen to treat Iraq as a 'war.' If the candidates were thinking through the logic of [Iraq] is [an occupation] than they would have talked more about legalities and fairness, but they did not. The dominant theme of the discussion on Iraq was the relationship between troop presence and the continuation or ending of the war.
Congress Is Powerless
Despite the ongoing effort by progressives and anti-war activists to push the Democratic majority congress to use its power to change the Iraq policy, all Democrats running for President--with the noteworthy exceptions of Gravel and Kucinich--now accept the idea that Iraq belongs to Bush. There is no longer any significant effort by the Democratic candidates to tell a story of how Congress can use its power to define U.S. foreign policy in the face of a President who has created a constitutional crisis. The top tier candidates in particular have all accepted the logic that they are powerless to effect serious change in the Iraq policy given the current political landscape.
Iran Is A Direct Threat To The United States
With the exception of Gravel and Kucinich, all Democratic candidates now speak in terms of Iran as a direct threat to the safety of the American people. The idea followed this logic: change in Iraq will have an impact on future safety for Americans because of how that change will effect our ability to stop Iran. All the Democratic candidates now seem to accept this logic, although there is a significant division within the field on how to address Iran. Richardson alone believes that the key to dealing with Iran is regional diplomacy--calling for a redeployment of U.S. combat forces from Iraq to nearby U.S. allied nations as a first step towards a regional diplomatic process involving Iran, Syria, Israel and Iraq. The idea that it may be necessary to use military force against Iran was not refuted, although it was not explicitly called for.
Withdrawal Is Not The Answer
The top tier candidates (Clinton, Edwards, Obama) are not speaking about withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq as a significant part of the solution to the crisis. The idea that to solve the crisis, we must first withdraw combat troops from Iraq is very clearly the minority position in the Democratic field and his held by Richardson, Kucinich, and Gravel. Dodd has taken up the view that the policy itself has been a mistake, therefore, the policy must be ended--also putting him in the dissenting position. But the official view on withdrawal of U.S. forces seems to be that it is not the key to ending the crisis in Iraq.
Iraq Will Be Partitioned
Despite the division in the Dem Presidential field on the subject of Iraq, all the candidates now talk about the 'partitioning' of Iraq as the logical endgame, albeit achieved through different means. The one exception to this view is Kucinich who explicitly stated last night that the United States should work hard to bring about the unity of Iraq. Still, the Kucinich position--by virtue of Kucinich's standing the polls--served largely to cast light on the dominance of the partition frame. Joe Biden seems to be the driving force behind this logic in the Presidential field, but last night it was Clinton who specifically endorsed this idea, setting in motion a domino effect whereby most of the candidates concurred. Whether partition is imposed or chosen voluntarily by the Iraqis was the distinction in Dem views, although few candidates except Biden seem comfortable with explicitly stating that the U.S. should (or would be able to) impose partition.
Five More Years: 2013
The top-tier candidates all agreed last night that the Iraq war is only half over--that if elected President, each will continue the U.S. occupation and U.S. combat operations inside Iraq until at 2013. This means that the official Democratic position is now that the Iraq war will be a ten-year war. Furthermore, this suggests that the Democratic Party has decided that it would like to see their success in moving war and occupation in Iraq to a close become a major topic in the 2012 Presidential election--too be, as it were, the key reason to re-elect the Democrat. The exceptions to this position are Richardson, Dodd, Kucinich and Gravel. Richardson, however, sees redeployment, a regional diplomatic solution and ongoing regional anti-terrorism operations, which would leave U.S. forces in the region, albeit not in Iraq. Dodd was the most explicit in calling for a new policy that did not also imply the presence of U.S. forces in the region. Kucinich and Gravel simply called for withdrawal.
Questions about how to pay for the next 5-years of war and occupation in Iraq were not engaged, meaning that the top tier of the Democratic party has now accepted the 'endless money' logic for the war on Iraq. While progressives have been making widespread comparisons between the amount of money spent in Iraq and the amount of money needed to pay for other parts of the U.S. government, the Democratic presidential field has, by and large, not picked up that logic. It is noticeable that in discussions of healthcare and retirement, for example, the 'endless money' frame is now extinguished, whereas in the Iraq debate it is now commonplace for Democrats.
Dem Story On Iraq: Continuity
Ironically, all of these developments suggest that the big story articulated by the leading Democrats when it comes to Iraq is: continuity. With the exception of Richardson who called for a tectonic shift from an Iraq-centered policy to a regional shift, none of the candidates placed Iraq inside a new Democratic Party story about what foreign policy should be about or where it will be heading. Instead, talk about Iraq was talk about continuity. Iraq is currently the center of U.S. foreign policy under the Republicans and, according to the logic articulated last night, if a Democratic candidate is elected, then Iraq will continue to be the center of U.S.foreign policy. While each of the candidates is arguing that electing a Democrat is a vote for change, it appears that the official Democratic Party view is that 'change' will happen someplace other than the Iraq policy (e.g., healthcare, environment, etc.)
Conclusion: Iraq Used To Show Strength, Not Skill
One conclusion I draw from all these developments is that Iraq is seen as an opportunity to demonstrate to the electorate that the Democratic Party candidate is strong--in militaristic terms--rather than an opportunity to demonstrate the problem solving skills of the Democratic Party. The idea that the Democratic Party is still perceived as 'weak' on defense and that this perception is the major electoral vulnerability--this logic has grown even stronger since the 2006 elections. Whereas large segments of the population believed they were voting for the Democrats for their ability to solve problems--to find the way to end the Iraq war and bring U.S. forces home--the Democratic Party appears to be focusing its 2008 Presidential campaign at those voters who want a candidate who can demonstrate military strength. Rather than having a Presidential election between a problem solving Democrat and a militaristic Republican, the Democratic Party appears to believe that the race will be between an enlightened militaristic Democrat and an authoritarian militaristic Republican.
As such, the shift in the Iraq frame made it even more obvious who the Democratic Party believes the GOP '08 presidential candidate will be.
(cross posted from Frameshop)