The following was originally published at TomPaine.com
No presidential candidate dominated the MoveOn.org Virtual Town Hall on Iraq this week, co-sponsored by Campaign for America’s Future, Air America and the Service Employees International Union. Nonetheless, there were two clear winners in the first straw poll of Democratic presidential candidates taken directly after a substantive discussion: Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill, and former Sen. John Edwards.
Yet the two, who were the only candidates to break the 20 percent mark, represent different ways on how to deal with President George W. Bush’s insistence on continuing the Iraq occupation.
Edwards told town hall participants that Congress should give the President no quarter in the showdown over the Iraq war supplemental bill:
If Bush vetoes funding for the troops, he is the only one standing in the way of the resources they need. Nobody else.
Congress must stand firm. They must not write George Bush another blank check without a timeline for withdrawal. Period.
If Bush vetoes the funding bill, Congress should send another funding bill to him with a binding plan to bring the troops home. And if he vetoes it again, they should do it again.
Obama is signaling a somewhat less confrontational approach. Earlier in the month, he told the Associated Press that, after a veto, the Senate would drop the withdrawal language in the bill because, “I think that nobody wants to play chicken with our troops on the ground.” At the MoveOn.org event, he glossed over what legislative language he would support immediately after a veto, and spoke of short-term compromise, albeit with long-term pressure:
I’m committed to putting as much pressure on the President and this war as possible in a responsible fashion. And I’m hopeful that the President is going to heed the advice of some of his own party, including Rudy Giuliani, to reach an agreement with the Democrats.
But assuming that he vetoes the bill, I’m committed to finding the 67 votes we need to override this veto. I would support putting conditions on the next version of legislation if we can’t muster 67 votes.
And I’m also looking at options of giving the President a much shorter leash moving to appropriate enough money for three to four months at a time, during which we continue to build more Republican support for veto override.
Is this difference between the two leaders of the pack indicate a split among activists as to how to best pursue ending the occupation? It’s certainly a question for Obama to figure out, as unlike Edwards, he’s a sitting senator facing tough votes.
If the straw poll results mean Obama’s milder approach resonated with some voters, he won’t face a backlash by voting for a “compromise” bill stripped of withdrawal language. But if those voters just weren’t paying attention to the nuances of his Iraq approach, a vote giving Bush what he wants might make them pay attention.
If Obama does lose traction to Edwards after such a vote, perhaps it will be unfair. The two basically share the same position on what they would do if they were president – withdraw combat troops by next year and leave no permanent military bases.
Nevertheless, one vote to unconditionally fund the war might undercut Obama’s longstanding opposition, and give an impression that he is not the candidate most committed to ending the occupation.
Furthermore, while Obama has been spending most of campaign jousting with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., he may have to keep an eye on Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M.. Richardson placed a respectable fourth, and a strong second among the (possibly more attentive) voters who attended MoveOn Town Hall house parties. Clinton, the nominal frontrunner in national polls, placed fifth.
What did Richardson, a favorite of the conservative-leaning Democratic Leadership Council, do to impress MoveOn members? He said he would leave behind “no residual force whatsoever” in Iraq, making crystal clear he rejects the neoconservative goal of permanent occupation.
It remains to be seen if Richardson can use that position to break out of his second-tier candidate status. But if Richardson starts gaining traction, Obama may have to worry that a vote for Bush’s preferred Iraq bill would effectively give a rising Richardson support out of his own hide.