Video: Clinton urges diplomacy with Iran

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updated 10/31/2007 2:36:42 PM ET 2007-10-31T18:36:42
ON THE TRAIL

With the Iraq war still raging and Afghanistan nowhere near being stable, why have presidential candidates decided to begin debating Iran? For Democrats, any talk of action in Iran gives them an opportunity to attack Bush and keep the base happy. Meanwhile, Republicans get a chance to flex their terrorism-fighting muscles for their voters. But can overplaying the issue in the primary leave the eventual nominees with a bad hand come next fall?

Iraq continues to be the unifying issue for Democratic voters, but lack of a unified message has taken its toll. If you need proof, take a look at Congress' low approval ratings. Both conservatives and liberal Democrats are sniping at their leadership. And even Republicans seem more emboldened than ever to talk about an issue that looked lethal just a few months ago.

In a recent reference to Hillary Rodham Clinton's, Barack Obama's and John Edwards' changing positions on Iraq, Rudy Giuliani said, "I think they're going to change their minds. I think the verdict of history is going to be that it was the right decision." The most recent CBS News poll showed that while a slim majority (51 percent) said the U.S. made a mistake in taking military action in Iraq, 45 percent said it was the right thing to do, up 6 points from September. In an October CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, a 64-percent majority said the war was going badly, but the percentage who said it's going "very badly" (37 percent) dropped 7 points from June.

But given the public's disenchantment with President Bush and his handling of foreign policy, should Republicans boldly raise the issue of intervention in Iran? In the same speech in which he chided Democrats on Iraq, Giuliani reiterated that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein helps the U.S. in dealing with Iran. "Suppose Hillary Clinton and John Edwards' new position was their position back then, that it was a mistake to take him out. Wouldn't we be dealing with Saddam Hussein becoming nuclear right now? If Iran was becoming nuclear, what would he be doing?" Giuliani asked. Video: Obama stresses diplomacy, credibility

The most recent CNN/ORC poll showed that while 77 percent of voters said they believed Iran was attempting to develop nuclear weapons, 68 percent opposed taking military action against Iran. For a party desperately trying to lessen the weight of Bush on its shoulders, talking up Iran certainly doesn't help shed that weight.

For Democrats, talk of a "drumbeat" on Iran can help re-engage an activist base disappointed with their party's lack of action on Iraq. Now that Democrats are in control of Congress and able to shape the debate, they seem committed to making up for having Iraq defined for them instead of by them. The decision to push attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey on waterboarding reveals a Democratic Party unafraid of a weakened president on an issue that Republicans don't want to have to defend.

Even in an environment that's ripe for a more aggressive message, Clinton has taken a very conservative approach. First, there was her vote for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment. More recently, while Christopher Dodd and Obama were quickly out of the blocks to say they'd oppose Mukasey's nomination, Clinton didn't make her opposition official until Tuesday. Rate candidates' positions

Why? The simple answer, of course, is that her campaign is already focused on a general election campaign and feels comfortable enough to avoid getting pulled too far to the left now. But it also suggests that despite the slip in the GOP's advantage on terrorism over the last few years, Democrats remain just as vulnerable to charges of being weak-kneed on foreign policy. After watching the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and "security moms" decide the fate of Democrats the last few cycles, it seems Clinton's campaign has made the calculation that it can't afford to assume that these issues have faded away.

If Democrats are still fighting the last war to prevent themselves from being portrayed as weak on protecting the country, it suggests that Republicans are still controlling the debate.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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