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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

It's the Economy [and Iraq], Stupid!

Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold holds listening sessions around the state, to make sure he doesn't become out of touch with the electorate. Basically, he shows up at cities, towns, and villages, sits down, and lets the people attending guide the discussion. In these listening sessions, one thing has become clear to him -- people are really angry about Iraq.

A recent item in The Capital Times illustrates the point:

[Feingold] said that in recent listening sessions across Wisconsin, he has intentionally not mentioned the war, seeing if citizens raised the issue themselves. The result? The war remains the number one topic in those discussions, he said.

"The people do want this, even while the consultants are telling us not to talk about it," Feingold said.

The "this" that the people want is a bill to cut funding for the occupation of Iraq. You're going to have to go anecdotal with me here, but this backs up something I heard from a pollster on NPR. When asked about the nation's top priority, respondents generally say what they believe other people think -- most recently, the economy. But when you make it clear that you want to know what they think, they tend to list Iraq at the top.

"I didn’t bring up Iraq at those January meetings because I wanted to see whether it was still a major concern, particularly with these audiences," Feingold says. "And guess what -- in every single meeting, they brought it up with me. And they didn’t just bring it up -- they asked what we are doing to bring home the troops."

No matter how you poll the question, Iraq is always high on the list of national priorities. A recent CBS News/New York Times Poll found that, while 33% list the economy as the top priority, Iraq comes in second at 20%. Further, when asked what they thought of the war, only 38% think military action was the right thing to do, 65% disapprove of Bush's handling of it, and 54% believe it's going badly.

Some antiwar voices are putting the war in a different light. "The Iraq war is basically a retreat policy against al-Qaida and bin Laden," says Jon Soltz, an Army reservist who heads of Vote Vets plans to run ads urging John McCain to drop his support for the war.

Of course, no one expects the pro-war McCain to change his tune -- and that's the point. The McCain campaign would much rather this election be about any other issue. Forcing him to address and defend his support can only damage him.

Others are taking the same tack. According to TCT, "a coalition of anti-war groups said this week that it plans to spend more than $20 million this year to convince voters that the Republican Party's support for the war is bad for their households." This includes $10 million by USAction, $5 million by, and $8.5 million by Americans United for Change.

To make matters worse for the Straight Talk Express, Democrats are moving to tie Iraq and the economy together. If the economy is the most important issue and Iraq is the second, the Iraq war's drain on the economy should strike home with a vast majority of voters.

CBS News:

Speaking from his home in North Carolina, John Edwards credited Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for continuing to make "clear they will end the war in Iraq" and said he "wants to make sure [voters] know they have a clear choice between a Democratic candidate who will end the war and the other choice … who will continue failed policies." Elizabeth Edwards reiterated her husbands concern about poverty, saying that the nation has "a limited amount of money, and we are spending too much on the war."

The Vote Vets ad brings up McCain's commitment to fighting in Iraq for "a thousand years" to make it's point. An Iraq war vet asks McCain, "this is my little boy. He was born a year after I came back from Iraq. What kind of commitment are you making to him? How about a thousand years of affordable health care, or a thousand years of keeping America safe? Can we afford that for my child, Senator McCain? Or have you already promised to spend trillions -- in Baghdad?"

It's hard to see how this message could be ineffective. We're pouring unbelievable amounts of money down a rathole in the desert, while very little is being done for Americans at home. McCain needs to explain why we should elect another President of Iraq, instead of a President of the United States.

Other factors are popping up as well. It was reported this morning that gas prices are expected to reach $4 a gallon this summer -- underscoring how stirring the pot in the middle east not only costs us money in military action, but at the pump. That this price hike hits just as the economic stimulus package kicks in won't be lost on many.

"Americans need to start taking care of Americans," says Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "We cannot spend a half billion dollars every day in Iraq." In fact, just yesterday we saw how the lack of investment in infrastructure is harming the nation. It may be impossible to calculate how much revenue businesses lost because of yesterday's blackout in Florida.

With Feingold's bill introduced in the Senate, the GOP leadership doesn't seem to see the freight train of public opinion bearing down on them. "We welcome a discussion," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said yesterday, "which would give us a chance to talk about the extraordinary progress that has been made in Iraq over the last six months, not only on the military side but also with civilian reconciliation beginning to finally take hold."

With only the aforementioned 38% minority thinking the occupation was a good idea, this seems to be a failure of logic. If the war was a bad idea to begin with, what difference would it make whether or not it was going well? If you find yourself beating the crap out of the wrong guy, do you keep beating him up because you're winning? McConnell's position -- which he seems to believe is brilliant -- is both a really lousy argument and a PR nightmare.

I don't know if McConnell holds his own listening session, but if someone were to offer to take the wager, I'd bet ten bucks on "no." Republican leadership seems completely out of touch with public opinion or even reality. They seem to believe that the Iraq war is a winning issue and no one typifies this delusion as well as President George W. Bush.

"I’m confident we’ll hold the White House in 2008," Bush said earlier this week. "And I don’t want the next Republican president to be lonely, and that is why we got to take the House, retake the Senate, and make sure our states are governed by Republican governors... With your help and hard work, there’s no doubt in my mind -- no doubt -- that we’ll win."

There's another bet I'd be happy to take.


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