May 23, 2007 -- Senate Democrats running for president face a dilemma this week in how to vote on the troop spending bill which no longer ties the $95.5 billion in funds for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to a binding timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal.
Either route chosen will bring with it huge potential political pitfalls, as Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., tacitly acknowledged Wednesday afternoon in her dismissive comments to reporters asking her how she will vote.
"When I have something to say, I will say it, gentlemen," Clinton told journalists.
Clinton's rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., announced Wednesday that he would vote for the Iraq spending bill.
"I'm not going to vote to leave the troops without money," Biden said. "You can go out there and demagogue it all you want but the bottom line is you need seventeen Republican Senators to join us," to override any presidential veto.
Because she is the front-runner for the nomination and because of the moderate persona she has worked hard to cultivate, the dilemma seems starker for Clinton.
If she votes for the bill, she will anger her party's liberal base and endanger her chances of a Democratic presidential nomination.
If she votes against it, she will hand her potential Republican opponents an issue they can use to paint her as weak on defense in the general election.
The former first lady has spent much of her six years in the Senate cultivating a hawkish persona, impressing generals from her perch on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and, last June, telling an audience of liberal activists that making "a date certain" was a bad idea.
She has since abandoned that position, but clearly she and her advisers have been working hard to make her seem acceptable on matters of national security and defense.
Voting against the Iraq bill might hurt Clinton in this regard, more so than any other move leftward she has made during this presidential primary season when Democratic voters overwhelmingly oppose the war.
A top strategist for a Republican presidential front-runner, speaking on condition of anonymity, told ABC News that Clinton's vote against the Iraq spending bill might help her in the short term in the Democratic primaries, but would be a gift to her potential GOP opponent should she win the Democratic presidential nomination.
"Clinton spent fair time in the Senate being a responsible defense type," the strategist said, "and for her this decision is much thornier than in Obama's case, since he already had this full-throated opposition to the war."
The GOP strategist said the "most direct shot" against Clinton -- or any Democrat who votes against the spending package -- will be the argument that "150,000 troops are deployed in Iraq and she voted against providing them support, equipment, armor, munitions and everything else they need to stay safe and do their mission."
The vote, the Republican strategist continued, came after "not one, but multiple attempts at forcing a withdrawal of U.S. troops, attempts that ultimately failed. When it was clear that was the case, the responsible thing would be to say, 'OK, we can't leave our troops unfunded in the field and unable to defend themselves.'"
Liberal Dems Vow Anti-War Vote
Without the timetables for U.S. troop withdrawal in the bill, many Democrats, including Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and potentially even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will vote against it.
In between moments Tuesday night when she was calling the bill "a giant step to begin the end of the war in Iraq," Pelosi allowed that she was "not likely to vote for something that doesn't have a timetable or goal of coming home."
On Wednesday morning, Eli Pariser, the political action executive director of the influential anti-war liberals of MoveOn.org said that the bill contained "no real timelines or real accountability for the Bush administration -- just a blank check for an endless war."
"A vote for this bill is a vote to continue President Bush's failed Iraq policy," said Pariser.
2008 Dems Race Left on Iraq
The Democratic presidential candidates, including Sens. Clinton, Biden, Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and former Sen. John Edwards, as well as Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., have all worked hard to not be outflanked on the left on who wants to end the war sooner.
Obama, unlike the others who all voted to authorize use of force in Iraq in October 2002, opposed the war in Iraq from the very beginning, as he frequently reminds voters.
In a new television ad, Dodd takes credit for pushing Clinton and Obama to the left on last week's vote to almost immediately begin withdrawing troops.
"Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have changed their positions to follow Chris Dodd," the ad claims.
Obama, like Clinton before him, has also created a Senate persona that attempts to be cautious and moderate in temperament.
"I think that nobody wants to play chicken with our troops on the ground,'' Obama told The Associated Press in April, implying that ultimately the Senate would vote for a "clean" bill that funds the troops without timetables for withdrawal.
"I do think a majority of the Senate has now expressed the belief that we need to change course in Iraq. Obviously we're constrained by the fact that a commander in chief who also has veto power has the option of ignoring that position," he continued to explain.
Obama was hammered by liberal activists and at least one rival for taking this position.
Participating in a Moveon.org candidates' forum, Edwards retorted, "This is not 'a game of chicken,'" before adding, "This is not about making friends or keeping Joe Lieberman happy. This is about life and death."
Obama also received some unwanted praise from war supporter Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who told cadets at Virginia Military Institute that he hoped "Democrats in Congress will heed the advice of one of their leading candidates for president, Sen. Obama, and immediately pass a new bill to provide support to our troops in Iraq without substituting their partisan interests for those of our troops and our country."
Last week Clinton voted in favor of an amendment offered by Feingold, her Democratic colleague who declined to enter the 2008 race, that called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops within four months, and stumbled a bit in her explanation, perhaps inadvertently highlighting the awkward position in which she finds herself.
Clinton initially said that her vote was not necessarily in support of the substance of the Feingold amendment, but rather just to open the matter for discussion.
"I'm not going to speculate on what I'm going to be voting on in the future," Clinton said. "I voted in favor of cloture to have a debate."
Later in the day, Clinton changed her tune, saying, "I support the underlying bill. That's what this vote on cloture was all about."
A spokeswoman for the rival Dodd campaign said, "We're as confused as anyone on Sen. Clinton's position," highlighting the scrutiny surrounding Clinton's delicate position on Iraq.
Republicans in general argue that there's a larger dynamic going on with the Iraq debate, and that is how Democrats lost the presidential voting majority for many years, the so-called Vietnam hangover.
The American public was just as tired of the Vietnam War, Republicans argue, but by opposing that war Democrats seem to have raised doubts with many moderate and swing voters about their national security strength.
A 2005 study of Democrats and the national security issue by the Truman National Security Project concluded that Democrats "began losing public trust in national security after the Vietnam War, and the confidence gap has remained large and steady ever since."
Though Democrats have periodically made gains with the public regarding national security, according to a 2006 Democracy Corps poll a plurality of the public believes to this day that Democrats care less than Republicans about "security and keeping people safe."
"Democrats have to look as if they can defend the country," the GOP strategist said. "And if they want to listen to the 'nutroots' who I don't think anyone will salute for sound or forward-thinking political judgment, OK, but it will not redound to their party's benefit."