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Marginal Iraq

Peter Beinart--always a glutton for progressive punishment--with an interesting commentary in today's Washington Post on the Iraq "non-story":

Since summer, according to The Post, the percentage of Democrats prioritizing "strength and experience" has gone down and the percentage wanting a "new direction and new ideas" has gone up. That's good news for Barack Obama, who is low on experience but high on charisma. In recent weeks, the Democratic primary campaign has frequently revolved around small, even trivial, issues -- driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, rumors of planted questions at town-hall meetings and dirty tricks -- that supposedly testify to the character of the candidates. And in this changed environment, Obama and John Edwards have managed to sow doubts about whether Clinton is too evasive and too scripted.

When the world is falling apart, people tend not to care about these sorts of things. After all, Americans elected Richard Nixon twice because they thought he could best extricate us from Vietnam. But with Iraq no longer as central, campaign 2008 has become more like the campaigns of 1992, 1996 and 2000, when résumés mattered less and personality mattered more. In the 1990s, the guys with pizzazz won and the guys with gravitas lost: Just ask George H.W. Bush, Robert Dole and Al Gore.

Iraq could make a political comeback, or it could be supplanted by another frightening post-Sept. 11 topic such as Pakistan or Iran. But right now, it's the biggest non-story of the campaign. No wonder Mike Huckabee is smiling.

I have a couple of problems with this theory:

1. The case could be made that Iraq is the lens through which all other foreign policy matters are viewed. So while the word "Iraq" wasn't literally stated that often during the Las Vegas debate, it was likely the backdrop behind all discussions of foreign policy. Iran, Pakistan, and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have become altered by the American military presence in Iraq. When it comes to polling, one rule of thumb I had heard was to watch and see if jobs/economy passes the 35% mark. When it does, it drags all of the other issues with it. The same could probably be said of Iraq, which has become, in many ways, the new watermark for American foreign policy.

2. Likely primary voters--like those polled in New Hampshire--may already be entrenched on the Iraq War. They may not have their preferred candidate in mind, but they probably have their favored party in mind. Most of the Republican contenders favor maintaining a presence in Iraq, whereas most of the Democrats hold varying plans for withdrawal. As an umbrella issue, there is near consensus on each end of the spectrum. The same cannot be said of immigration, as Beinart notes, which creates a divergence of opinion on both sides of the primary race.

That being said, it's an interesting argument made by Beinart. He neglects to mention John McCain, whose candidacy should probably serve as the Iraq War weathervane. How many times has the Arizona senator's campaign been pronounced DOA? Will Iraq improvement mean good things for him?

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