Almost exactly a year ago, four of the nine Democratic presidential contenders voted for the congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to wage war against Iraq. Ever since, they’ve been haunted by that vote, because many rank-and-file Democrats are passionately opposed to the war. Now, with the impending vote on $87 billion to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the contenders have a chance to make amends to those Democrats.
The four Democratic contenders who voted for the war resolution were Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio is the only Democratic contender serving in Congress who voted against the war resolution. He is also opposed to the $87 billion funding request and has challenged the other Democratic contenders to support his proposal for relinquishing the U.S. occupation to the United Nations.
Lieberman has taken the most straightforwardly hawkish position among the Democratic contenders, pointing out that he favored toppling Saddam Hussein long before Bush ever became president.
GEPHARDT TO VOTE ‘YES’
The $87 billion Bush is seeking includes about $20 billion for repairing and building infrastructure in Iraq and for setting up border patrol and other Iraqi interim government functions.
The bulk of the $87 billion goes to sustain U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and to replace equipment destroyed or worn out since the Iraq operation began.
On Wednesday, Gephardt said he’d vote for the $87 billion, which will put him at odds with Edwards and Kerry, who have said they will vote “no.”
“I will support the $87 billion supplemental request because it is the only responsible course of action,” Gephardt said in a statement issued by his campaign. “We must not send an ambiguous message to our troops, and we must not send an uncertain message to our friends and enemies in Iraq.”
He explained that the United States could not afford to “leave Iraq like we did Afghanistan in the 1980s to become a breeding ground for terrorism and home for terrorist training camps.”
At the same time Gephardt said he’d remain outspoken in his criticism of the Bush administration for its handling of the reconstruction and nation-building process since Saddam was driven from power.
A vote for the $87 billion jeopardizes Gephardt’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination — but depending on how events play out in Iraq, voting against the funding might have jeopardized his chances of winning the general election, if he were the Democratic nominee next year.
Gephardt’s stance “makes sense to me,” said Washington-based Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who specializes in tracking races in the South. “He was out front in supporting the war, so it would be very inconsistent for him to vote against the funding.”
Gephardt’s vote allows him “to separate himself” from most of the Democratic contenders and show he is “not beholden” to liberal activists who dominate the early primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, Ayres said.
WHERE DEAN STANDS
When asked last month about Bush’s request for $87 billion, Howard Dean, the Democratic front-runner, said, “I’m not in Congress. That’s not a decision that I make.... I’m running for president. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, but I’m not going to tell you how I face an issue that is not of my making.”
But more recently Dean has said he would oppose the $87 billion unless Bush and Congress pay for it by repealing a portion of the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003.
Dean has said Bush should persuade foreign governments to contribute more troops to maintain order in Iraq. He has also stressed the need for continued U.S. presence.
“We cannot lose the peace in Iraq, so we are going to have stay there. We’re stuck there,” he told reporters last month. “We cannot pull all the U.S. troops out of Iraq. We have to stay there for the duration.”
David Loebsack, a political scientist at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, and a Dean supporter, said most rank-and-file Iowa Democrats see the Iraq predicament as one with no obvious solutions.
“I think most Democrats, while opposed to the Iraq war at the outset and certainly have even stronger sentiments about it now, nonetheless believe that it is not possible simply to cut and run at this point,” Loebsack told MSNBC.com. “That being said, I believe they also want to make sure that the money is not simply added to the already burgeoning deficit.”
He added, “Most folks I know in the party do not believe it is prudent simply to abandon the effort. It is not an either-or proposition.”
THE VIEW FROM IOWA
Another Iowa Democratic activist, Tim Lapointe of Mason City, told MSNBC.com, “I firmly believe that folks in this area will not be supportive of paying anywhere near” the $87 billion. “I’m glad to see Edwards is against it. But he and most of the others still cannot hide from their early support of the war by opposing this.”
Lapointe added, “I see this vote as a huge issue for those of us who are still undecided Iowa caucus attenders. The wrong vote on this could, and should, cost someone the nomination.”
Kym Spell, a spokeswoman for the latest entrant into the Democratic race, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, said, “as a career soldier, his first priority is taking care of our men and women in uniform.”
But she added, Clark has many questions about Bush’s request, including whether the $87 billion is merely a down payment, how the money will used and “how we’re going to pay for it.”
Kerry said Wednesday, “Unless this proposal is changed to better protect taxpayer dollars and shares the burden and risk of transforming Iraq with the United Nations and the rest of the international community, then I will oppose it.”
Edwards announced Tuesday he’ll vote against the funding request.
“I believe we have a responsibility to support our troops in Iraq. I believe we have a responsibility to help rebuild Iraq. But our troops will not be safer and this mission will never be successful unless the president dramatically changes course,” Edwards told the Associated Press.
Edwards struck a different tone in April on the day Baghdad fell to U.S. troops.
“Today is an historic day and a new beginning for the people of a free Iraq.... We know that there will be hard days ahead, days that will test our leadership and our willingness to engage the rest of the world,” Edwards said.
But he argued for a long-term U.S. commitment. “We’ve proved that we have firepower. Now we must show that we have staying power.”
Using rhetoric nearly identical to that used by Bush administration officials, Edwards also said, “It is in America’s national interest to help build an Iraq at peace with itself and its neighbors, because a democratic, tolerant and accountable Iraq will be a peaceful regional partner. Such an Iraq could serve as a model for the entire Arab world.”
Since then, the mood has changed, American casualties have mounted, and many in Congress have also been troubled by the cost of reconstruction efforts, citing, for example, the administration’s estimate of $50,000 for every prison cell that is going to be built in Iraq.
While the issue of how much of the reconstruction package might be converted into a loan is still not resolved in the Senate, in the end Bush is likely to get most of the $87 billion he sought.
The decisive vote may have occurred two weeks ago when Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., failed in an attempt to remove $15 billion of the $20 billion in funds for Iraq reconstruction from the $87 billion request.
The Senate rejected Byrd’s amendment by a vote of 59 to 38.
Eight Senate Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., voted with all but one Republican to kill the Byrd amendment.
With the $87 billion a take-it-or-leave-it package, skeptics about the Iraq effort are forced to vote against money for U.S. troops in the field if they want to express opposition to Bush’s post-war management of Iraq.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.