Sheehan Magnifies Fissures on Iraq

Folk music legend Joan Baez, center, talks to military mothers near President Bush's ranch.

Folk music legend Joan Baez, center, talks to military mothers at an anti-war protest camp near President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, Aug. 21, 2005. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

If Cindy Sheehan's peace vigil outside President Bush's ranch has demonstrated nothing else, it has shown that the politics of war can be treacherous. And it doesn't matter which side you're on.

For the president, Sheehan has been a daily reminder that he can no longer take for granted backing from a crucial constituency — military communities. It has also underscored the weakening of support for the war effort among Democrats and Republicans alike.

Sheehan came to the scene with a compelling story — her son paid the ultimate price in Iraq — and lots of political savvy.

She has ruled the airwaves this August, competing with none other than the commander in chief for attention. The president is used to interspersing his vacation with media events that dominate the political news, since Congress is out of session and journalists are hungry for anything resembling news. This month, Sheehan's face has been as ubiquitous as his.

But the fact that Sheehan's message — which is that the war is unjustified and the troops should come home — has caught fire has as much to do with the political climate as it does with her personal campaign.

And the climate is problematic for Republicans.

Sure, Sheehan has excited and mobilized people who were against the war to begin with. That fact was driven home when Joan Baez showed up in tiny Crawford over the weekend.

But her cause would likely not have become so captivating if middle-of-the-road voters were not beginning to doubt the war in Iraq as well.

As polls have shown, opposition to the war effort has also begun to gnaw at the conservative base. And this is putting pressure on some allies to convey concern. Last weekend, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) openly compared Iraq to Vietnam.

"We're past that stage now because now we are locked into a bogged-down problem not unsimilar, dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam," Hagel said on ABC. "The longer we stay, the more problems we're going to have."

Even the most loyal of loyal GOP senators, Trent Lott of Mississippi, expressed some doubts about the president's war message on NBC. "I remember when we were getting ready to go to Iraq, just about this time, I made a call to the vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney," Lott said. "And I said, 'Mr. Vice President, I think I see what we're getting ready to do. The predicate has not been laid. You all have got to get out there — you and the president and Secretary Colin Powell — go to the United Nations, explain what's going on, make the case.' I think that we're at sort of a juncture of that type now. I do think we, the president, all of us, need to do a better job — do more."

Sheehan has shown that as the war continues to rage in Iraq, the president's stay-the-course message is fallible. But she has exposed problems for Democrats that are as severe — or worse.

Going back to the presidential campaign, when Democratic leaders seemed confused about whether to get behind anti-war candidate Howard Dean or semi-pro-war candidate John Kerry, the party faced several challenges.

For one, plenty of Democrats voted to support the war at its onset. They are mindful that an "I-thought-we'd-find-WMDs" argument, legitimate as it may be, comes across as flimsy to voters. And so coming out against the war now is dangerous.

Meanwhile, Democrats seem as afraid as ever that opposing a war too vocally — or at all — could make them seem weak, playing into Republican hands as an election season approaches.

Sheehan has only crystallized problems. She opened the door for Democrats to come out strong with an anti-war message — and showed they weren't ready.

Democrats have even seemed tentative about how to handle her. Howard Dean's former campaign manager, Joe Trippi, quickly offered public support. Organizers of MoveOn.org helped her organize nationwide vigils.

All this immediately drew criticism suggesting that Sheehan was no innocent war mom, but an activist using her son's name and the names of other fallen soldiers for political gain.

The Democratic leadership in Washington has kept its distance from Sheehan's message, saying that to bring troops home from Iraq or set a timetable to do so could embolden insurgents there and make matters worse.

Meanwhile others, like Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have embraced Sheehan's cause. Feingold called for troops to be home by the end of next year — and also made clear his party is searching for a common, marketable theme.

"The Democrats are making the same mistake they made in 2002," he said on NBC. "They let the administration intimidate them into not opposing this war when so many of us knew it wasn't a good idea. And same thing with this taboo on talking about a timeline. It doesn't make sense."

Both parties will be trying to make sense of what's happening in Iraq as they position themselves for the 2006 congressional elections. And what Sheehan has taught everybody is that it may not be easy.

In a conflict like the Vietnam War, opponents found it easy to mobilize opposition. When President Bush sent troops into Afghanistan to avenge the Sept. 11 attacks, he found it easy to mobilize support.

For the moment, the war in Iraq may fall somewhere in between — a fact that has both sides uncomfortable.

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