Lately I've been reading that because of St. Petraeus' wonderfully working surge in Iraq and the resulting drop in US casualties, the war is officially no longer an issue in the 2008 elections. The weekly roll call of the dead can be done in only a minute or so every Friday on the PBS Newshour, and the Iraqis -- they're only dying by the dozens per day, not hundreds. So the whole thing is now off the front page and now, and as it ever shall be, it's the economy, stupid.
Well, yeah, recent polls have shown the economy replacing the war as the single-most important issue for voters now. You can only have one #1 issue at a time, after all, and things like a foreclosure notice, a pink slip, that piece of mail saying your meager retirement nest egg has 10% fewer dollars than the last time they wrote (though fortunately they don't tell you the dollars are worth 10% less, too) -- these things have a way of focusing the mind. One's own problems come first for most people -- that's just human nature. And modern America, with its 24/7, advertising-driven celebration of greed and material consumption, which has reached such a point of madness that overeating is projected to soon become the leading cause of death -- well, we're human nature on steroids at this point.
But the war no longer an issue? Hardly. For if you can get past the hysterical TV babble about the latest round in the Clinton-Obama soap opera for a minute, you might notice something unusual happened in the Maryland primary this week. In an era when 95% of Congressional incumbents get returned to office, two longtime House members -- one from each party -- were trounced by primary challengers on the very same day, largely because of the positions they took on the war. And the way the parties are becoming ever more polarized on the issue, the war is not only going to be an issue in November, it's going to be the issue.
For 16 years, Democrat Al Wynn has represented Maryland's Fourth District, a suburban Washington district centered on Prince George's County, one of the largest black middle class areas in the country. Holding as safe a Democratic seat as there is, he never faced a serious challenge until 2006, when public interest lawyer Donna Edwards took him on. She centered her attack on Wynn's vote in favor of authorizing the war in Iraq, one of only four members of the Congressional Black Caucus to do so, and despite being outspent 3-1 by a better-known opponent with all the advantages of incumbency, Edwards came within three percentage points of unseating him.
The results were encouraging enough to bring Edwards back for a rematch, this time with the enthusiastic support of the antiwar netroots and hundreds of thousands of dollars in small contributions. Not that Wynn didn't try. His contributor list even included such normally Republican stalwarts as the US Chamber of Commerce, war profiteer Raytheon, computer maker Dell, and former Congressman Billy Tauzin, who famously wrote the Medicare prescription drug plan and then retired to a million dollar-a-year job as a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist. Tauzin is gone from Congress, but something called the Billy Tauzin Congressional Committee lives on as a sort of slush fund for business-friendly candidates, and Democrats are free to apply. Wynn did, successfully, but ultimately it did him no more good than his too late getting of religion on the war. Last Tuesday, Edwards beat him by 24 points.
In the First District, Republican Wayne Gilchrest had represented Maryland's Eastern Shore and some Baltimore suburbs even longer than Wynn. Gilchrest was always a bit idiosyncratic for his party. He once quit his job as a high school teacher to go count moose as a forest ranger in Idaho, and he was working as a house painter in 1988 when he got the wild idea to run for Congress. It's hard to see why he ever joined the conformity party, except that the incumbent was a Democrat and there was no line in the GOP waiting to run against him. But before election day, his opponent was hit by some scandals, and while he lost that race by the narrowest of margins, Gilchrest won a rematch two years later. It's a district where party registrations run about even, so he faced a tough challenge in 1994, but he squeaked out another win in that Republican year. Since then, with a strong environmental record and moderate positions generally, he's attracted enough Democratic voters to win in a walk every time.
Those same moderate positions always made him somewhat suspect to Republican hard-liners, although you would think his environmental advocacy could at least be forgiven, since tourism is a big part of the Eastern Shore's well-being, and Chesapeake Bay is not only ecologically fragile but economically important as well. You would think that, but you would be wrong. It seems only Democrats like crab cakes. Still, he was a vote for GOP committee chairmen, no matter how stupid or corrupt, and he went along with most of their treasury-looting schemes, which was all that really mattered. So he never had to face a serious challenge from within his own party.
But last year, he committed an unpardonable sin when he was one of only two Republicans in the House to join Democrats in voting for a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. That he had been shot in the chest while a Marine Corps platoon leader in Vietnam scored him no points at all. Indeed, as John Kerry and Max Cleland can testify, wounded war heroes are presumptively traitors and cowards as far as Republicans are concerned. They love armchair generals who learned their military strategy during drunken games of Risk in college, and whose only shooting victims have been hunting buddies. But they hate real soldiers.
The Republicans are married to this war, joined at the hip, and by their own, inexplicable choice. Who wants it? Certainly not the military, whose members have made the bulk of their campaign contributions to Republican Ron Paul and Democrat Barack Obama, the two candidates left in the race who opposed the war from the onset. The Baker-Hamilton Commission offered them one last bipartisan chance to disown the disaster, but Bush snubbed them rather than admit a mistake, and his Congressional allies followed him like lemmings. The Achilles Heel of most liars is that they eventually come to believe their own lies and then start to act on them, and I guess that's what's happened here.
And no one demonstrates the phenomenon better than their presumptive presidential nominee, John McCain. Guarded by a phalanx of armed-to-the-teeth Americans, he pronounces Baghdad safe and the surge a success, and states his willingness to soldier on in Iraq for 100 years. Then taking it further, anyone who disagrees with him he essentially brands an idiot. There's no strategic goal for staying there that he can articulate or defend, mind you. We just can't be perceived as losing -- like it's a football game, and our #1 ranking is at stake. Of course, that same argument was once made about Vietnam, and if it had prevailed, McCain would be in the Hanoi Hilton still. But it's other young men paying the price now.
McCain thinks that if casualties can just be kept down, the American people just won't care, and he cites Korea, Japan, and Europe as examples of decades-long deployments that give rise to no dissent. But casualties in those places aren't just low -- they're zero. Most Americans are only vaguely aware whether 100 or 80 or 30 Americans were killed in Iraq last month, but they know it wasn't zero, or anything close to it. And it's not going to be, not even if we occupy Iraq for 100 years. Just ask the Israelis.
And from where will we get the dollars and soldiers to fight this Hundred Years War? That too goes unarticulated. Borrow them from China, I guess.
But what about those polls, the ones that show Iraq "receding" as an issue? Well, maybe it is the economy, stupid, but what about another poll by the Associated Press reported this week? When asked what's the best thing the government could do to cure the ailing economy, the top answer, quite sensibly, was -- Get out of Iraq, and stop that God-awful, pointless waste of money. Its $3 billion a week price tag is dwarfed only by the $1 billion-plus a day overall federal deficit in the latest Bush budget. (The Bush tax rebate package, by the way, finished last among the choices.)
The Vietnam War continued to escalate through years of street protests, but the tipping point didn't come until about 1970, when 25 years of post-World War II prosperity finally turned into recession. You can see a waste of money for what it is when you no longer have it to waste, and when the Silent Majority began to feel the pain, even Nixon had to listen, and "peace with honor" became "a decent interval."
But if the Democrats run true to form, they will breathe a sigh of relief at these polls showing their traditional national security weakness is somewhat "off the table," and they can run on the "bread-and-butter" issues where they think they have the advantage. And as has happened so often in the past, this strategy will do nothing but reinforce the image of the Democrats as weak on national security. How can we count on them to defend us, voters reason, when they won't even defend themselves?
What would I do? I'd say if the Republicans want this war so bad, take it and shove it down their throats, and then take a breath and ram it down some more.