At the Democratic presidential candidates' debate on September 26, the three top-polling candidates declined to promise that they would remove U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of their first term in office--that is, January 2013. Although these statements put the Democrat "frontrunners" squarely at odds with the American public--the majority of whom favor a more timely withdrawal, according to recent polls--they were cheered by several top journalists and pundits, who saw this as a signal that the candidates were distancing themselves from anti-war voters.
When debate moderator and NBC host Tim Russert asked this question of the candidates, the leading three--John Edwards and senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama--agreed that the next president could not pledge to end the war by the end of the first term. The so-called "second tier" candidates were much more forceful about ending the war well before then.
For some, the Democratic frontrunners were only being realistic. Under the headline "For a Democrat, Options in Iraq Could Be Few," Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks (9/29/07) wrote that "the key question for centrist Democrats in the presidential race is no longer whether U.S. forces will remain in Iraq but what size, mission and length a post-buildup, post-Bush force would take on." Ricks went on to write, "Ultimately, however, it appears now that no matter who inhabits the White House, the United States may be resolved--or resigned--to an enduring presence in Iraq." The article closed with a comment from David Kilcullen, an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, rejecting the prospect of troop withdrawal: "America has taken a deep breath...looked into the abyss of pulling out, and decided, 'Let's not do it yet.'"
On NBC's Meet the Press, network correspondent David Gregory declared (9/30/07) that this was "a really measured position for three candidates.... I think it's a realization... that they're going to take a more centrist position and say to the left wing of their party, 'We've got to be pragmatic about this. We can't lose the general election because of your feelings about the war.'"
Responding to his Fox News colleague Brit Hume's argument that the Democrats were "being pulled so far to the left" by groups like Moveon.org, NPR reporter Juan Williams said (9/30/07) the frontrunners "understand America's interest in Iraq to the point that they are willing to say to their base, a base that wants to get out, 'No, you know what, we may have to be there to protect American interests till 2013.' How is that playing, in any way appeasing, a base? That is being honest and responsible. That's the kind of leadership we want."
And a Boston Herald editorial (9/28/07) hailed the "new realism" of the top-tier Democrats: "It seems the delicate Democratic dance toward the great American middle--where elections are won--has already begun."
But in what sense could these statements be considered "pragmatic" or representative of a middle course? The war is overwhelmingly unpopular, both with the Democratic party base and the general public. The latest CNN poll (8/6-8/07) found 64 percent of respondents saying they opposed the war, while only 33 percent said they supported it--a roughly 2-to-1 split. And the idea of keeping troops in Iraq for five years or more is massively unpopular; according to a recent CBS poll (9/14-16/07), just 5 percent of Americans want to see U.S. troops in Iraq for that period of time.
There's a long tradition of mainstream media pushing Democrats to the right on an array of issues--even when the left position is clearly embraced by a majority of the public (Extra!, 7-8/06). The question is, are leading Democrats more interested in winning the approval of pundits--or in winning elections?