Both Democratic and Republican politicians are becoming uncomfortably aware that they may have seriously miscalculated just how unpopular the war in Iraq is with a very large number of American voters. Fence-straddling on the war, let alone calls to "stay the course" are being seen as increasingly dangerous or fatal options.
Take John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona, former POW in Vietnam and, until recently, deemed a sound bet to win his party's nomination as presidential candidate. McCain saw his task as the simple one of banging the war drum more loudly than his rival, Rudy Giuliani, and deriding the Democrats as wimps and traitors to the flag.
Today, the McCain bandwagon is axle deep in news stories freighted with grim talk about his "doomed bid." Mockery greeted his carefully planned photo-op last month in a Baghdad market, where — wearing body armor and amid a huge armed escort — he proclaimed that at last the tide was turning and the U.S. press was ignoring the good news from Iraq. After that debacle, remembering the success of his jaunty call for bombing of Serbia in the mid-'90s, "Lights out in Belgrade!" McCain then tried out a Beach Boy-type jingle, "Bomb, bomb Iran," which did him no good either.
His problems and those of Giuliani can be boiled down to the message of an Iowa poll released earlier this week: 56 percent of registered Republicans want the troops out of Iraq within six months. The message? This electoral season any candidate shouting, "Stay the course in Iraq" is doomed. So do the Republicans have a candidate with a simple call to bring the troops home now? Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska has been saying this for months, but thus far he's dithered on the edge of an announcement that he's in the race.
After recapturing Congress last November, the Democrats paid plenty of lip service to "the message from the voters" about getting out of Iraq. Substantively they didn't plan to do much. Then the Democratic leadership discovered that the voters really had sent them a very explicit message and didn't want to be fobbed off with some vague, non-binding resolutions about withdrawal deadlines. Candidates like Hilary Clinton are finding that brawny talk about "leaving all options on the table" (i.e., nuke Iran if necessary) isn't at all popular with the solid liberal base they can't afford to offend in the long march to the nomination.
By far the best performance at a recent Democratic candidates' debate organized by MSNBC was by a very distant outsider, Mike Gravel, a 77-year former U.S. senator from Alaska, well known nearly 40 years ago for his opposition to the war in Vietnam. In some electrifying tirades, he flayed Clinton, Obama, Edwards, and the others as two-faced on the absolute imperative of getting out of the war in Iraq and not getting into one in Iran. "They frighten me," Gravel shouted, gesturing at his rivals. "You know what's worse than one U.S. soldier dying in vain in Iraq. It's two soldiers dying in vain. In Vietnam they all died in vain."
So the Democrats are edgy, too, though not quite so much as McCain, whose only option is to turn on a dime and come out against the war at the end of the summer. What the Democrats fear is that a very significant number of voters are in a testy mood, ready to punish anyone — Democrat as well as Republican — who doesn't have a clear, simple plan to bring the troops back home. So now they are openly conceding they misunderstood the public mood. But they are also aware that if they seriously tilt toward Gravel's position about the insanity these overseas interventions they will be savaged by the political establishment on every talk show and every piece of political analysis in the mainstream press. So they are caught between the public mood and the imperial imperative and the latter will prevail in their calculations and thus — absent a prodigious orgy of doublespeak — alienate their political base. There's no serious Third Party peace candidate yet, but the possibility of one emerging haunts both sides. Ross Perot doomed George Bush in 1992. There isn't a Democrat who doesn't believe Ralph Nader sank Al Gore in 2000, whatever the actual truth may be.
Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.