Unemployment has its advantages in politics, as former vice presidential nominee John Edwards is demonstrating.
Free from the vote-casting shackles of the Senate, Edwards is putting some of his former colleagues — and potential future opponents — under a bit more pressure when it comes to the war in Iraq. In a speech honoring Martin Luther King Jr. at Harlem's historic Riverside Church on Sunday, Edwards called on Congress not to fund President Bush's plan to send more than 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq.
In the remarks, which appear on his Web site, Edwards said, "if you're in Congress and you know this war is going in the wrong direction, it is no longer enough to study your options and keep your own counsel. Silence is betrayal. Speak out and stop this escalation now." Edwards' opposition to sending more troops received a standing ovation inside the church and set off some fireworks within the ranks of Democratic presidential contenders.
Although no specific names were mentioned, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's camp responded directly and forcefully. "In 2004, John Edwards used to constantly brag about running a positive campaign. Today, he has unfortunately chosen to open his campaign with political attacks on Democrats who are fighting the Bush administration's Iraq policy," Clinton spokesperson Howard Wolfson said in a statement.
The episode highlights some of the difficulties facing the handful of sitting Democratic Senators actively contemplating presidential bids. While all are highly critical Bush's proposal, they face a difficult political calculation in deciding how best to oppose it. Democrats in Congress could seek to cut funding, but those who might cast a vote for that course risk being criticized for failing to support the troops. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley hinted at that on Sunday, saying that the administration already had enough money for the proposed deployment, and adding, "I think once they get in harm's way, Congress' tradition is to support those troops."
But the war is universally unpopular among the Democratic base candidates will be trying to woo during the 2008 primary season. A CBS News poll taken earlier this month found that 77% of Democrats surveyed wanted a decrease or full withdrawal of troops from Iraq. And another CBS poll asked viewers of Bush's Wednesday night speech if they supported the plan to send more troops to Baghdad 82% of Democrats opposed it.
Edwards has called his own 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq a mistake and has apologized — a move that has won him support among a group of activists expected to play a large role in the nominating process. But being a staunch anti-war voice is far different than having to actually cast a vote to cut funding for the war.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who on Monday announced his own presidential exploratory committee, was not in the Senate when the 2002 vote was taken — although he has said he would not have voted for it and has called for a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Still, when asked by CBS' Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" whether he was prepared to support a cut in funding, Obama pointed out that some of the proposed troop deployments had already begun, adding, "we need to look at what options do we have available to constrain the president, to hopefully right the course that we're on right now, but to do so in a way that makes sure that the troops that are on the ground have all the equipment and the resources they need."
Running for the presidency as a legislator with a lengthy record of votes on a myriad of issues is difficult because those votes offer opponents any number of possible opportunities to point out differences between rhetoric and actions — between votes cast and positions advocated in a campaign. Legislative process is often difficult to understand and even harder for candidates to explain to voters, something John Kerry learned in his 2004 presidential bid.
Under similar pressure to oppose the war while supporting the soldiers fighting it, Kerry got caught up in trying to explain his vote on a bill authorizing $87 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But his claim that "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it" was quickly seized upon by Republicans and played over and over in TV ads designed to make Kerry look like he was trying to have it both ways and became one of the defining sound bites of the campaign.
While some Democrats in Congress, like Rep. John Murtha, have said they would like to at least tie future funding to certain conditions if not cut it altogether, there are no votes on the immediate horizon. How any of the probable presidential candidates in the Senate would vote is unclear since none have taken a firm position on the funding question. Edwards doesn't have to face that decision as a full-time presidential candidate, but Sen. Clinton's response to his speech shows the difficulties presidential candidates face when their day jobs come into conflict with satisfying political needs — and how being free from governing responsibilities can be a great asset on the campaign trail.