Has the war disappeared as a political issue? If so, it’s huge news, and a tremendous boon to the president. If not, then the Democrats are still in a quandary that is only being temporarily disguised by the Iowa results. The new conventional wisdom (see especially E. J. Dionne today) seems to be that the war has lost salience as a political issue. Democrats care more about being anti-Bush than about being anti-war per se. That’s why so many anti-war Democrats went for Kerry and Edwards. But while Iowa liberals went for Kerry and Edwards, Deans voters called themselves “very liberal.” The hard left still cares passionately about the war, and the question is, what will they do when Dean’s candidacy ends? When Kerry or Edwards finally win, they’re going to have to actually say something about the war. At that point, they will be jousting directly with president Bush, and under scrutiny by all the voters. It is still going to be difficult for Kerry or Edwards to be anti-Bush without being anti-war, or anti-war without seeming weak. Everything they say is going to be scrutinized by the disappointed Deaniacs, who will not be happy about having to support a me-too hawk. We saw how much of the State of the Union address was taken up with the war. The Democrats still face a real minefield in dealing with that question. Whatever a Kerry or an Edwards as nominee might say, they are liable to alienate either moderate Democrats or the hard left. In other words, appearances to the contrary, the war issue cannot go away, because the war itself is not going away–and neither are the hard leftists who hate it.
Let’s get concrete about how the war issue will play out during the campaign. Both Kerry and Edwards voted against money for the occupation. That’s a badge of honor for them in the primaries. But during the election campaign, they’ll be savaged for it by the Republicans. Will Kerry and Edwards defend themselves by attacking the occupation? If so, the war is back as an issue. If not, they will look silly for their vote, and the president’s conduct of the war and the occupation will have effectively been ratified. What about the multilateralism question? We saw the president’s devastating attack on that last night. Will criticism of president Bush’s unilateralism be a major theme for Kerry or Edwards? If so, I think the voters will go with the president. But if Kerry and Edwards drop the multilateralism theme, the disappointed Deaniacs are going to get angry and alienated. So as I see it, the supposed disappearance of the war as a major issue can’t help but be a temporary phenomenon. Sooner or later, no matter who they nominate, the Democrats are going to be right back in their trap–caught between their moderate middle and the hard anti-war left.