March 7, 2008 – The anti-war base of the Democratic Party is back for the election year with a message to voters worried about the economy: Blame the war in Iraq.
Gearing up for the fifth anniversary of the launch of the Iraq war, on March 19, a new organization comprising the Service Employees International Union, MoveOn.org, and the Center for American Progress is sponsoring vigils across the country to reflect on the fiscal costs of the war. During the coming months, the new coalition, called the Iraq Campaign 2008, will spend $20 million on grassroots organizing, television ads, and YouTube videos aimed at linking the word “recession” to “Iraq” for swing voters.
“We want people to think, in one fell swoop, when they think of Bush and Republicans, to think of Iraq and recession as a hyphenated word,” Brad Woodhouse, the president of a group in the coalition, Americans United for Change, and a former staffer on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an interview yesterday.
The latest push is both old and new for the Democrats. The far left of the party has long complained that defense spending deprives the federal government of money for domestic spending such as national health care insurance and pre-kindergarten education. But for anti-war groups, which have called for a retreat from Iraq on moral and strategic grounds, the emphasis is new.
Last summer, the peace groups’ strategy was to persuade Republicans who were wavering on the war to support time lines for an exit from Iraq. The campaign was focused largely on the Democratic-majority Congress to spur leaders to tie funding for the war to hard-and-fast deadlines for pulling troops out of the war zone.
The new campaign is less a cajole and more a bludgeon in an election year. Last week, for example, an anti-Iraq war group of veterans that is part of the coalition, VoteVets, released an ad featuring veteran Rose Forrest, who asked the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Senator McCain, whether he would commit to 1,000 years of universal health care instead of 1,000 years in Iraq.
Polling in September for Americans United for Change on President Bush’s budget battle with Congress showed that cost was becoming one of the top concerns for Americans about the war, Mr. Woodhouse said. Last month, a poll conducted by the Associated Press and Ipsos found that 68% of Americans ranked pulling out of Iraq as the no. 1 way to fix the economy.
On a conference call with reporters last month, a former North Carolina senator and Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, ticked off a list of economic woes for American voters, from the price of gasoline to the state of the health care system, and concluded: “All these things are [made] much worse by concerns about the war in Iraq.”
One boost to the anti-war push is a new book from a Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz. In “The Three Trillion Dollar War,” Mr. Stiglitz argues that the Iraq war is not only the proximate cause of the recession, but that its cost is $3 trillion, despite an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office last month that the total additional cost for the war on terrorism in general and in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular is $752 million.
Mr. Stiglitz, who argued in the 1990s that the speedy transition to a free market system from totalitarian communism left many Russians in worse shape than they were under the Soviet empire, testified on February 27 before the Joint Economic Committee of the House and Senate, and later speculated that the war could end up costing $5 trillion because of additional costs for health care for wounded veterans and the rising price of gasoline.
Dean Baker, a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank, said in an interview this week that the new political campaign to tie the recession to the Iraq war was mistaken. “The facts are so strong: The war was wrongheaded from a national security standpoint, a moral standpoint; Saddam did not attack us; we killed a lot of people in the process. There is also an argument that the war is bad for the economy,” Mr. Baker said. “But I hate to see us try to stretch it by linking it to the recession.”
Mr. Baker said he believes that America is in a recession because of the collapse of the housing bubble.
When pressed, Mr. Woodhouse said he and his coalition are not arguing on policy grounds that the Iraq war caused the recession. “We are saying to a larger measure, if we had not been spending the billions in Iraq, you can bet the stimulus package would have been more robust,” he said.
The director of foreign policy and national security for Mr. McCain’s presidential campaign, Randy Scheunemann, said the new anti-war campaign fails to recognize the costs of leaving Iraq prematurely. “This is an argument that the right-wing or left-wing isolationists would have said, ‘We shouldn’t spend money overseas because we have domestic needs at home.’ Obviously we have domestic needs. Just as obviously, if anyone needed a lesson, we got a lesson on September 11, 2001, that what happens in faraway places directly affects our security,” he said.
Senate Republicans, who just last week welcomed and won an open debate over legislation by Senator Feingold, a Democrat of Wisconsin, to mandate Iraq war funds be limited to fighting Al Qaeda, see the new campaign as a sign of desperation.
“They spent all last summer, tens of millions of dollars, trying to explain why the surge won’t work and why it was a bad idea,” Don Stewart, the spokesman for Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said. “Now you have even some of the harsher critics say it has some success. What they said would happen did not happen. The problem is you can only make inaccurate predictions so many times.”