By Aaron Blake - 12/03/09 01:18 AM EST
Democrats in leading races are all over the map on Afghanistan.
The president’s proposal for a troop increase represents one of the
thorniest issues yet for these Democrats, and their wide-ranging
reactions to President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday bore that out.
The candidates seemed acutely aware of this conflict, but they took different approaches to it.
While centrist Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) opposed the increase, his
netroots-friendly primary challenger Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) said he
would support it. And Illinois Senate front-runner Alexi Giannoulias
stood behind the proposal, while his primary opponents stood against it.
Specter was the most blunt in his opposition. “It is unrealistic to
expect the United States to be out in 18 months, so there is really no
exit strategy,” he said. “This venture is not worth so many American
lives or the billions it will add to our deficit.”
The Kentucky Democratic primary was more nuanced. Lt. Gov. Dan
Mongiardo supported the plan late Tuesday night and Attorney General
Jack Conway said Wednesday morning he has “reservations.”
“I do not feel President Obama has adequately explained how he will
get Pakistan involved in the effort to combat al Qaeda,” Conway said.
Conway wasn’t the only one to reserve judgment. Rep. Paul Hodes
(D-N.H.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) also sounded skeptical, but
didn’t say no. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) called Obama’s speech a
step in the right direction but said he still has questions.
Others were clearer. Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher followed primary foe
Jennifer Brunner’s lead in opposing the increase, and Sen. Barbara
Boxer (D-Calif.) opposed it as well.
The top two candidates in next week’s Massachusetts Senate election, Martha Coakley and Rep. Michael Capuano, also said no.
Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) and Missouri Secretary of State Robin
Carnahan both said they supported the president and his proposal.
“President Obama’s strategic review and subsequent policy decision
on Afghanistan puts us on a course for success that we lacked for many
years,” Meek said.
Fisher said “defeating al Qaeda does not require 30,000 additional troops be sent to Afghanistan.”
Fisher is a heavy favorite in his primary with Secretary of State
Brunner and has raised far more money, but his position suggests he is
still concerned about her. Bennet and Specter also have to watch their
left flanks because of primary challenges, and they appeared to be
doing so after the speech.
Giannoulias’s decision suggests he is confident in his primary
prospects; former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman and Chicago
Urban League President Cheryle Robinson Jackson both said they opposed
the increase. Of course, Giannoulias also might just want to say that
he stood with his home-state president, whose Senate seat they are all
In the House, the best illustration of the differing approaches was
a group of 47 freshman Democrats who drafted a letter in 2008 asking
for a renewed focus on Afghanistan. Of that group, Reps. Steve Kagen
(D-Wis.), Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) and Tim Walz (D-Minn.) weren’t
ready to commit after Tuesday’s speech, while Reps. Michael Arcuri
(D-N.Y.), Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) expressed
Sestak also signed that letter, and despite tacking left against Specter, he said he would support the buildup.
“After years of war and with economic challenges at home, the
American people are justified in their concern about an increased
commitment in Afghanistan,” Sestak said. “But the president has made
the right call.”
Democrats mostly sought to de-emphasize the issue on Wednesday,
acknowledging their divisions but saying that issues like the economy
still reign supreme in voters’ minds.
The bill also led to different reactions by Republicans. Most said
they approved of the troop increase but oppose any deadlines — Obama
set a July 2011 goal for beginning a withdrawal — though some departed
Former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), who is running for Senate in a
blue state but also faces a primary challenge, said the proposal sounds
too much like taking the plan from Iraq and applying it to another war.
“Afghanistan is not Iraq, and the same prescription of a troop surge
cannot be counted on to achieve the same results,” Simmons said.
In the race against Boxer, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina
supported the increase, but while most Republicans seemed to dismiss a
timeline, she suggested a certain kind of timeline could be appropriate.
“I believe that any timeline for withdrawal must be sensitive to conditions on the ground, so that it does not pose a security risk for both Americans and Afghans,” Fiorina said.