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Will top 2020 Democrats make ending war in Afghanistan a defining issue or an afterthought?

Getty Images, Stefani Reynolds

Lets face it — to date much of the 2020 race for president among the field of Democratic contenders has been laser focused on defeating Donald Trump — as well as domestic politics. Foreign policy, for the most part, has been on the back burner.

Besides launching political volleys Trump’s way, the dialogue in the race for the presidency among Democrats has ranged from ideas such as expanding the U.S. Supreme Court from nine to 11 judges to abolishing the electoral college and breaking up Facebook — all important and debatable, and all domestic issues. Front and center in the nomination contest’s discourse, however, have been more traditional topics, like healthcare access, whether or not to pursue Medicare for All, gun control, social and economic justice policies, as well as how to best tackle climate change.

While several of the candidates hovering atop the polls in the 2020 running have touted some policies reflecting their visions for abroad, none have defined themselves by it. This includes grappling with America’s longest-ever war: Afghanistan.

Since its inception, the 18-year war in Afghanistan has cost Americans tremendously in blood and treasure. The AP recently noted that as of early 2019, “the U.S. has spent $737 billion on the war and lost more than 2,400 military lives, according to the Pentagon.”

And that’s not the totality, unfortunately. In fact, the Pentagon recently said that the war in Afghanistan costs taxpayers $45 billion per year… with no end in sight they may have to keep footing that bill for years to come.

At a time when public opinion for the war’s foreverness is waning, data suggests that, “About half of adults (49 percent) say the United States has mostly failed in achieving its goals there.”

All this begs the question of why Democratic candidates leading in the polls aren’t talking more about such a major issue.

This dynamic represents a sharp contrast from the last Democrat to successfully win the presidency. In 2008, Barack Obama made an anti-war message of ending the war in Iraq a core pillar of his campaign. At the time, the Iraq war was enormously unpopular, while the majority of Americans still supported the war in Afghanistan.

Since then, the tables have turned, and Americans have soured on the continued presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan as the war approaches nearly two-decades in duration.

To be clear — it’s not that candidates haven’t taken a position on the seemingly endless war; on the contrary, a slew of the top-polling Democratic White House hopefuls have made public their desire to bring an end to the war that started in October of 2001:

Even though a number of top-tier candidates have drawn a line in the sand when it comes to their position on ending America’s longest war, the reality is that none of them has made it a hallmark their campaign, or for that matter, harnessed a potent anti-war message like Obama successfully did in ’08 with the unpopular war in Iraq.

Lesser-knowns, such as Congresswoman and Iraq war veteran Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), have tried to brand themselves as being the anti-war candidate, but from the start her campaign has failed to take off or generate momentum.

Still, public opinion data increasingly suggests that many Americans have grown tired of the war in Afghanistan. With such a vast array of candidates jockeying for the job of commander-in-chief, and particularly within the crowded upper echelon of the field, it’s an open question as to whether or not one of the leading Democrats will grab ahold of the anti-war mantle, own it, and define their campaign with it. If they’re looking for a way to stand out from the pack and gain some altitude by breaking through with voters who are juggling with the embarrassment of riches when it comes to the candidates, such a move could help.

Dave Jacobson is a Democratic ad maker, co-founder and partner of J&Z Strategies, a national media, digital and campaign consulting firm. He is also a CNN Political Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @daverjacobson 

Tags 2020 campaign 2020 Democratic candidates Barack Obama Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Joe Biden Pete Buttigieg Tulsi Gabbard War in Afghanistan

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