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Dems' Balancing Act On Iraq

By Charlie Cook Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2003

Some issues are more politically complicated and dicey than others, but few are as delicate as Iraq is for Democrats these days.

On one level, the base of the Democratic Party has opinions considerably different from those of the country at large. A Feb. 11-13 national survey of 800 registered likely voters by the highly respected Republican polling firm of Public Opinion Strategies showed that while 63 percent of all likely voters favor "having U.S. forces take military action against Iraq to force Saddam Hussein from power," 51 percent of all Democrats oppose that move. Among "core Democrats" -- those who say that they are "very likely" to vote in a Democratic primary for president and describe themselves as being liberal -- opposition climbs to 66 percent. While "core Democrats" make up only a third of the party overall, that third is typically the most vocal and most active in party politics. And as POS partner William D. McInturff points out, "it shows what wackos Democratic primary voters really are."

Now obviously, polling data on a possible war with Iraq differ considerably depending on the actual wording of the question. While there is a national consensus that Saddam is a bad person, possesses weapons of mass destruction and ought to be removed from office, most polls show that a majority of respondents also favor giving United Nations weapons inspectors more time and would like to see the U.S. attack Iraq only as part of a large international coalition -- preferably with a second U.N. resolution.

Still, these POS numbers do show an important schism between Democratic Party faithful and the electorate at large -- one that would seem quite alluring to a Democratic presidential contender seeking to win the party nomination, but brings with it the risk of alienating the voters needed to win a general election. Some of this difference is driven by gender politics -- 71 percent of all male likely voters are in favor of attacking Iraq, but support drops to just 54 percent among women. But the all-important swing voters almost mirror the electorate at large: 63 percent favor attacking, while 30 percent say they are opposed.

Putting aside the considerations of under what circumstances we should attack Iraq, the differences between the overall public's opinions and the attitudes of Democrats -- and particularly core Democrats -- go much deeper. When asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement that "President Bush is considering attacking Iraq because Iraq is the world's second largest exporter of oil and we want to have control of Iraq's oil," only 29 percent of the overall electorate and 26 percent of swing voters agree with that statement -- but 46 percent of all Democrats and a whopping 58 percent of all core Democrats agree.

While only 33 percent of all likely voters and 27 percent of swing voters agree with the statement that "President Bush is considering attacking Iraq to try and make up for the fact that his father failed to finish the job and overthrow Saddam Hussein in 1991," 58 percent of all Democrats and 62 percent of core Democrats say it is accurate.

Similarly, while only 30 percent of all likely voters and 26 percent of swing voters agree that "President Bush is focusing on Iraq to draw attention away from his lack of progress in the larger war against terrorism and his failure to capture Osama bin Laden, 53 percent of all Democrats and 61 percent of core Democrats agree with that statement.

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And finally, while only 32 percent of all voters and 26 percent of swing voters agree with the statement that "the Bush administration wants to attack Iraq to take attention away from the fact that the economy is in terrible shape and the President has no significant domestic agenda," 58 percent of all Democrats and 64 percent of core Democrats do so.

To a certain extent, partisans of the party out of power naturally ascribe the worst of motivations on the other party's president -- that's the nature of politics. Many Republicans, particularly conservatives, immediately questioned President Clinton's motivations on every issue, warranted or not. But for Democratic presidential contenders trying to navigate these tricky shoals of winning a nomination among party members lusting for partisan red meat rhetoric, then still wooing November swing voters, who see such attitudes as bizarre, is not very easy.

Arguably, both parties' respective bases are hardly representative of the electorate at large -- but only Democrats have to pick a presidential nominee next year. McInturff argues that the Democratic Party base will be looking for a "anti-war, single payer" (on health insurance) candidate -- which is not necessarily what will match up best with swing voters come November 2004.

Having said all of this, the question being begged is why aren't the Democratic presidential contenders positioning themselves as more anti-war than they have so far? And for that matter, why are many congressional Democrats more reserved on the subject that one might expect, given the fact that most represent (thanks to two consecutive pro-incumbent redistricting processes) very safe, very Democratic districts?

That brings us to Democrats' second complication on this Iraq issue. While the dovish, anti-war tendencies of many Democrats are still alive and well, many of the party's most loyal supporters -- and indeed many of the most prolific campaign contributors -- are also fervently pro-Israel and, on this issue, very hawkish. That explains why the vote on the House floor last year featured many of the House's most liberal members, people who rarely disagree with each other on anything at all, split on war with Iraq. One group stuck with their historically dove tendencies, while others saw taking out Saddam to be critical to Israel's security and overriding any other interest.

Thus Democrats are forced to choose between two of their most loyal constituencies, with most opting to give nominal backing, with considerable obfuscation of their true feelings, but also keeping as low a profile on the issue as possible, hoping to antagonize as few supporters as they can.

Charlie Cook's "Off To The Races" is published each Tuesday by National Journal Group Inc. For more information about National Journal Group's publications, go to http://www.nationaljournal.com/about/


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