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Edwards Moves on With MoveOn

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John Edwards (WDCpix)

Polls show that with the presidential campaign intensifying, the economy and the Iraq war are the voters’ two most pressing concerns. Now, a $20-million effort by liberal activist groups asks: why choose?

A coalition announced Monday and called Iraq Campaign 2008 seeks to tie anxiety over the faltering economy to anxiety over the duration of the war. Part of its agenda is targeting what it calls “obstructionist” members of Congress — Democrats as well as Republicans — that don’t seek a rapid withdrawal from Iraq. The campaign has an attention-getting front-man: former presidential candidate John Edwards. The effort, however, is not without problems — not least of which is the conundrum of whether antiwar activism turns out to be counterproductive to ending a war.

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Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“People don’t understand why we’re spending $500 billion and counting in Iraq,” Edwards said in a Monday conference call, “when at the same time we’ve got 40-plus million Americans with no health care coverage, 37 million-plus living in poverty. It doesn’t make sense to them.”

The effort is the brainchild of a group of liberal organizations: MoveOn.org, the Service Employees International Union, the VoteVets progressive veterans network, USAction and the Center for American Progress.

Countering both wars will require a variety of offensives. On Mar. 19, the fifth anniversary of the invasion, USAction, says executive director Jeff Blum, will mobilize thousands of protesters “from Bangor to Los Angeles” for candlelight vigils.

Legislatively, the coalition has two priorities through the election: pressing Congress not to fund the war without tying money to a date for withdrawal and preventing President George W. Bush from signing a long-term security agreement with the Iraqi government, as he intends to do by the summer.

Politically, the effort is to be even sharper. “If they don’t act,” Berger said, referring to Congress, “we will make it clear that they will have opposition, and we will take them out.” She did not elaborate, and a spokeswoman for Iraq Campaign 2008 did not return a call today for comment.

MoveOn’s Eli Pariser said the coalition will target four Republican senators in particular who have “stood up against the interests of voters”: Susan Collins of Maine; Norm Coleman of Minnesota; John Sununu of New Hampshire; and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Political analysts consider the first three to be among the Senate’s most vulnerable GOP incumbents. McConnell has an approval rating of 52 percent, which, if not actually poor, is a somewhat surprising choice, considering his 24 years in the chamber and ascendancy to the body’s most visible Republican. The coalition is still deciding which House districts to target.

Finally, the coalition will launch a field network it calls Operation Democracy. The multimillion-dollar effort will fund “door to door” campaigns — “people will talk to their neighbors about the moral, strategic and economic folly of Bush’s war in Iraq,” Blum said.

The costs of the war have been far higher than the Bush administration forecast. White House Economic Adviser Larry Lindsay was forced to resign after publicly pegging the Iraq war’s price tag at $100 billion to $200 billion. In February 2003, a then-deputy defense secretary told a House panel that Iraq “could really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.” The prediction was less than prescient. In September, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the war could cost up to $2 trillion. Thursday, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz will testify to the congressional Joint Economic Committee that the war will cost $3 trillion, building off research for a forthcoming book.

Independent economists have found a connection between the war and the performance of the U.S. economy. Last May, the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that “after an initial demand stimulus, the effect of higher defense spending turns negative around the sixth year.” That sixth year begins Mar. 19. The economists found harmful impacts on inflation and interest rates, annual truck and car sales, and the housing market, as well as job losses in construction and manufacturing. “Manufacturing is projected to lose 44,200 [jobs] after five years,” the study found, while the construction sector would have a net gain of 8,500 jobs during the same time frame, but “it is projected to lose 144,200 after ten years.”

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who will hold the hearing featuring Stiglitz’s testimony, stated, “We must ask ourselves, is it worth spending trillions of dollars on such an uncertain and unpredictable outcome?… The backbreaking costs of this war to American families, the federal budget, and the entire economy are beyond measure in many ways, and it is becoming one of the first things after the loss of life that people think about.”

Polls suggest Schumer and the coalition are correct. A January poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner of persuadable voters found the war and the economy to top the concerns of “persuadable” voters — that is, voters open to persuasion by either party. The poll found that 51 percent found “very convincing” the argument that “rather than spending [$500 billion] on an overseas war we cannot win, we should invest in our own people and our own children.”

Yet there are reasons to be skeptical of Iraq Campaign 2008. For one, Edwards. The former North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic vice-presidential candidate remains enormously popular with the progressive Democratic base. Yet despite running for president practically since the 2004 election ended, his campaign did not achieve any primary or caucus victories in 2008. Yet it is also true that his anti-poverty agenda was adopted by both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. It is uncertain how the persuadable voters identified in the January poll will react to a campaign led by a figure firmly identified with the Democratic left, particularly as that campaign portrays itself as presenting a common-sense critique.

Beyond Edwards is a paradox that has vexed the antiwar movement since before the invasion of Iraq: how its very existence jeopardizes its goals. The Vietnam-era antiwar movement did not end the war. Its cultural radicalism, however, provided a pretext for Richard M. Nixon to portray the idea of a rapid withdrawal from Vietnam as a fringe position, despite its overwhelming popularity. In 2005, the antiwar Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson looked at the war’s cratering popularity and observed, “The absence of an antiwar movement is proving to be a huge political problem for the Bush administration… The administration has no one to demonize.”

Since Meyerson’s column, the war has grown less popular and the country more liberal, at least judging by the 2006 elections and the further-left positions taken by the Democratic presidential candidates. Yet anything that strikes the public as indicative of too-exuberant opposition to the war is politically delicate. In September, MoveOn ran an ad asking if General David Petraeus would “Betray Us” by presenting Iraq as a success story in Congressional testimony.

The Republican Party used the ad as a way to talk not about the war but about the “fringe” MoveOn organization. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who strongly supported the surge in Iraq, still talks about the “Betray Us” ad on the campaign trial.

But Edwards found anecdotal evidence throughout his campaign that linking the war to the economy resonates around the country. “The concern about the cost of gas, the health care system that’s broken, doesn’t work and needs fixing, how to pay to send their kids to college, the mortgage foreclosure crisis, these are central concerns,” he said, “and all these things are made much worse by concern about what’s happening in Iraq.”

Bringing the coalition’s efforts around to the election, “John McCain, the apparent [GOP] front-runner, has made it very clear he intends to continue exactly the same policy [as Bush],” Edwards said. “That’s not what the American people want to see. They see a direct connection between spending in Iraq and the economic anxiety caused by that.”

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