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Escaping Blame

Side-by-side articles in last Tuesday's New York Times raised an interesting question.

One reported a vow by Lowell Weicker, who served in the Senate as a Republican before winning Connecticut's governorship as an independent, to find an anti-war candidate to challenge Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, or to run himself. The other story reported that an anti-war labor activist intends to challenge Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York's Democratic primary.

The question is, why aren't there more anti-war candidates? After all, only 40 percent of Americans think the war is "worth the number of U.S. military casualties and the financial cost," according to a November NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Don't get me wrong. The public's mood certainly doesn't ensure that anti-war candidates will succeed. In fact, the chances of Clinton's losing her primary or the general election are about the same as Halley's comet making an unscheduled swing by Earth next year. Furthermore, Lieberman is extremely unlikely to lose in 2006.

Nevertheless, given all the criticism of the war, particularly in the Democratic Party, and given how many Democratic lawmakers voted in favor of it, why are there so few anti-war challengers? For better or worse, in the minds of the public, this is President Bush's war. That doesn't mean it can't hurt Republican candidates in hotly contested races. But if the war does hurt Republicans, that will mostly be collateral damage.

The public apparently believes that Congress was little more informed about Iraq than ordinary citizens were and seems to think the congressional vote to go to war was based on representations made by the president and his foreign-policy team. Therefore, people believe that the blame should go to the Bush administration, not Congress.

For members of Congress whose districts or states were close to (or home to) the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, the war vote also involved domestic political considerations.

The strong desire to strike back after the 9/11 attacks may well have influenced some fairly liberal Democrats to support going to war, despite the absence of hard evidence that Saddam Hussein had any connection to 9/11. Some longtime doves backed the war then and don't seem to be catching much, if any, flak at home for having done so.

A third factor in the war vote may have been related to domestic politics. Although many of the high-profile pro-Israel organizations in the United States did not take a formal position on going to war, the Jewish community seemed to strongly support the idea of ousting Saddam as a way to promote stability in the Mideast and increase Israel's security.

A fourth factor is that Democrats are keenly aware that for decades their party has been viewed as having little credibility on national security matters. Many Democrats remain extremely skittish about appearing "soft" on national defense and becoming targets of the brutal GOP spin machine.

The fact that only three House Democrats recently voted for immediate withdrawal from Iraq is testament to the party's sensitivity on the matter, despite estimates among Democrats that at least four or five dozen of them would have loved to vote for an immediate pullout.

Which brings us to the final point: Even though a majority of Americans think the war was a mistake, no consensus exists in the public, among elected officials, or in the foreign-policy establishment about what we should do next. Most foreign-policy experts argue that an immediate pullout, or a specific timetable for withdrawal, would be a mistake.

Eliminating those options makes it difficult to offer an alternative to Bush's determination to stay the course. While a measured withdrawal without a publicly announced schedule obviously is one alternative, calling for gradually allowing Iraqi forces to assume greater responsibility doesn't exactly present a stark contrast with Bush's position.

Thus, Democrats in Congress find themselves in the awkward spot of criticizing what has already happened yet being very divided over the nation's future course. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, nervously stand with the president. They want to remain supportive, but they worry about the personal political cost.

The overall result is that this anti-war movement has the sympathy of a growing portion of Middle America but has yet to turn itself into a political force as potent as the anti-Vietnam War movement was 35 years ago.

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