Oct 3, 2008

How Forgotten Iraq May Elect the Next President

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Whose War Will Win the Election -- McCain's or Obama's?

By Ira Chernus

In 1932, in the midst of a disastrous economic meltdown, Franklin D. Roosevelt made "the forgotten man" the centerpiece of his presidential election campaign. Far more than we suspect, this year's election may turn not on a forgotten man, but on a forgotten war in a forgotten country.

Even before the present financial meltdown hit the news, the Iraq War had slipped out of the headlines and off the political stage. Now, as investment houses totter and bailout plans fill the headlines, it will be even harder for Iraq to get major media attention. Yet the war remains just beneath the surface of the presidential campaign, and so is sure to affect the outcome in ways too complicated to fully grasp.

Think of that war not as one, but two currents, affecting the coming election all the more powerfully because they are out of sight, out of mind, and -- interacting in unpredictable ways -- out of anyone's control.

Obama's War: The Realistic Disaster

The first current is that of realistic perception. Polls continue to show that at least 60% of prospective voters see the war for what it is: a disastrous mistake. Among Democrats, the percentage is far higher than among Republicans, which may be the main reason that Barack Obama is now the Party's candidate for president.

As the only major candidate in the Democratic primaries who opposed the war from the beginning, his stance proved decisive. It remains a powerful factor in his favor as undecided voters make up their minds, even if they don't fully realize it. Remember, most people's electoral decision-making processes -- like the war in American consciousness at this point -- run largely below the surface.

Widespread opposition to and unhappiness with the war (and its expense) has long fueled a broader feeling that the U.S. is "on the wrong track" and needs change of some kind. About 80% of voters were voicing that feeling even before the recent financial collapse began. Much of it came from frustration over a major Vietnam-like military effort that, somehow, once again went terribly awry. Once again, we tried to save a nation by destroying it. Once again, American treasure was poured into a hopeless, hapless venture abroad. From this, there remains a powerful feeling of disillusionment and mistrust across the political spectrum, largely directed at the party in power.

Until recently, it was the war more than anything else that made George W. Bush such an albatross around the McCain campaign's neck. It was the war (and McCain's ongoing support of it) that let the Obama campaign score so many points with the simple slogan: McCain = Bush's Third Term. There will never be any way to measure just how many votes that anti-Bush feeling will cost McCain, but it will surely be felt on Election Day.

In fact, it's already being felt in the halls of Congress as negotiations over an instantaneous emergency fix of the financial system drag on.................Read more

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. He can be reached at chernus@colorado.edu.