Hardening Their Positions

The legislative process pushes the parties together. The presidential campaign pulls them apart.

After the first two debates of the 2008 presidential campaign, the candidates' positions on the Iraq war have clarified, strengthened, and counterbalanced pressure on the two parties in Congress to come together following President Bush's veto of the Iraq funding bill.

Hill Democrats acknowledge the pressure. "It's incumbent upon us to work together," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "It's not a question of backing down but recognizing reality." Hill Republicans acknowledge the pressure, too. "If the Democrats are willing to do the right thing, Republicans will be there to support them to get a new bill to the White House," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.

Democrats have demonstrated they can hold their base together. Now they have to figure out how to crack the Republican base. "If the president is not going to sign the bill that has been sent to him, then what we have to do is gather up 16 [Senate] votes in order to override his veto," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said.

Find the votes. That's a legislative strategy. But compromise and deal-making could antagonize the Democrats' base. Candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination have to rally that base. Conventional wisdom says that compromise is the pragmatic choice: Produce a funding bill that Bush is willing to sign. But that may not be the most pragmatic choice in this case. The Democratic candidates have been moving in the opposite direction: standing firm and demanding an end to the war.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., has repeatedly explained her 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq by saying, as she did in last month's South Carolina debate, "If I knew then what I know now, I would not have voted that way." Since that debate, the Democratic front-runner has sharpened her position by calling on Congress to revoke that authority by October 11 of this year, the fifth anniversary of the 2002 vote. "It is time to sunset the authorization for the war in Iraq," Clinton declared on the Senate floor last week. "If the president will not bring himself to accept reality, it is time for Congress to bring reality to him."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said during the Democratic debate, "I would withdraw all of our troops, including residual troops, by the end of this calendar year." Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut has endorsed a bill that would require the withdrawal of American troops within a year and set a date certain for cutting off war funding.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has released his first television ad. He uses it to urge congressional Democrats not to compromise on Iraq.It features voters who say, in sequence, "We want Congress to know" ... "We are with you" ... "Don't back down to President Bush" ... "Send him the same bill again and again."

Meanwhile, in their debate at the Reagan library last week, Republican presidential candidates also hardened their positions. Several of them warned of the consequences of getting out of Iraq without achieving the administration's goals. "Rather than simply walking away and leaving the Middle East in a complete, disastrous chaos that will spread to the region and to the rest of the world, it's important that we finish the job," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney warned against bringing the troops home "in such a precipitous way that we cause a circumstance that would require us to come back."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., described the direst possible consequences: "If we withdraw, there will be chaos. There will be genocide. And they will follow us home."

The legislative process pushes the parties together. The campaign pulls them apart. That puts special pressure on five of the eight Democratic contenders and five of the 10 Republican candidates. They're not just running for president; they also have day jobs. They're all members of Congress.

Does an uncompromising stand undermine the Democrats' legislative strategy? Not necessarily. "The president is counting on the Congress backing down," Edwards said. "The Congress should not back down. They have the support of the American people." Democrats such as Edwards believe that by holding fast, their party will begin to peel Republican lawmakers away from the president. Why? Because public pressure will become overwhelming, and Republicans will see the next election looming.