Galesburg, Ill. – The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have drifted far off this year’s political radar, and are likely to stay there.
Even the recent barrage of headline-dominating news about the two wars hasn’t vaulted the issue, which dominated American political debate in the last decade, into the forefront of 2010 voter concerns.
Barring some spectacular development, few see the wars becoming a major campaign theme.
“The economy is everything,” said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California San Diego.
The economy remains the dominant political concern even though, in the past nine days, three war-related developments have been big news:
- President Barack Obama’s speech Monday to a veterans group in Atlanta reiterating his vow to end combat operations in Iraq at the end of this month.
- The release last week of 92,000 classified documents detailing the problems the United States and its allies face in Afghanistan.
- A House of Representatives vote on war funding last week that exposed deep divisions within the Democratic Party on war policy.
Polls illustrate how far off the political radar the wars have drifted. A July 16-21 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey found that 47 percent of voters said the economy was the most important issue facing the country today. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a distant fifth, at 8 percent.
That view is clear in places like Galesburg, a northwest Illinois city hit hard in recent years by manufacturing cutbacks. The city of 31,000, crisscrossed by busy railroads, was the site of the original 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate and the birthplace of poet Carl Sandburg. Residents this fall will vote in close U.S. Senate and governor’s races.
As the Afghanistan document leak dominated the news last week, Knox County Democratic Party Chairman Norm Winick sat with other party activists at Innkeeper’s Coffee, a local political hangout.
“I don’t think anything there surprised anybody,” he said.
Folks around town late last week were simply unaware of the House’s Tuesday vote on funding the war. 148 Democrats voted yes and 102 voted no, with the dissenters arguing that the U.S. should pull out quickly.
Party leaders tried to downplay the rift, but more than three times as many Democrats voted no than on a similar emergency war funding bill 13 months earlier.
The wars’ political invisibility is an abrupt change from the previous decade, when the conflicts played a major role in each of the past four national elections. In 2002, Republicans won their majorities in Congress less than a month after lawmakers voted to give President George W. Bush broad authority to wage war in Iraq and elsewhere.
As the nation soured on the war in Iraq, Democrats capitalized, winning back congressional majorities in 2006 and increased those majorities — and won the White House — two years later.
However, this year’s election so far is overwhelmingly about how the nation’s coped with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Two other factors add to the lack of political urgency over the war. First, the nation is split on how the U.S. should proceed. A July 8-11 Pew Research Center poll found the country divided over whether the U.S. military effort is going well in Afghanistan.
Forty-seven percent said the U.S. and NATO should keep troops there until the situation is stabilized, while 42 percent said that troops should be removed as soon as possible.
The other factor cooling any political debate is that, as Jacobson, put it, “the fault lines on this are within the Democratic Party.” Republicans generally support Obama’s war effort, and dissident Democrats are reluctant to challenge the president publicly.
“Those most angry about U.S. policy in Iraq while Bush was president were sincere, by and large, but they’ve become surprisingly uninterested in the place since Obama became president, even though U.S. policy has hardly changed,” said Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois.
“Some of that is because of other events, more focus on Afghanistan and the state of the economy. But I think Democrats will cut a Democratic president much slack,” he said.
Around Galesburg, a political bellwether where the June unemployment rate was 10.4 percent, the same as statewide, the talk is all about the economy.
When partisans in both major political parties are asked about the wars, they tend to shrug and turn the conversation to other topics.
“Obama inherited the wars from Bush, and considering what he was handed, he’s doing a heck of a job,” said Ron Burton, a smoke shop clerk.
“I don’t see anybody lighting up the boards right now with their policies on anything,” added Perry Darrah, a custodian.
This state has some highly competitive races this year, and the Democrats at the coffee shop say the key to wooing voters is convincing them that candidates understand their economic pain.
“The war is halfway around the world. People don’t see it,” said Louisa Buck, a local activist.
Said Mike Kroll, a computer store owner, “You can’t question the war policy without being accused of not supporting the troops. That’s stifled a lot of dissent.”
That’s why, said Knox County Democratic Chairman Winick, “The war is just not that much of an issue around here.”
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