Iraq is the defining issue at this opening stage of the 2008 presidential campaign. Look no further for evidence than Wednesday, when five of the eight senators making 2008 White House bids were proposing legislative ways Congress could wrest power from the commander in chief to get U.S. troops home.
On the Democratic side were Senators Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Joe Biden of Delaware, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois. On the Republican side was Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
Returning from a four-day swing to Baghdad, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Germany, Clinton spent much of the public part of her day discussing her proposals on Iraq. Clinton is floating an innovative plan to cut funding -- not for U.S. troops, which is political suicide -- but to the Iraqi government, reluctant to police their own, and the private contractors the United States pays to protect them.
Clinton is poised to launch a presidential bid any day now. She'll send a smoke signal about her plans sometime "this month," her senior adviser Howard Wolfson told me.
No sooner did Clinton finish an afternoon news conference than Sen. Barack Obama, who triggered his White House run on Tuesday, sent out a statement saying he, too, will be introducing legislation furthering his concepts for getting troops home.
This is notable politically because it's the first time since Obama started running for president that he directly reacted to Clinton. He at first told reporters he might draft his own plan in a matter of days. It turned out to be a few hours, suggesting he has a rapid response operation either incubating or fully hatched.
It's interesting to see Obama elbowing his way into a developing story line of the day.
Obama and Clinton are starting as the Democratic front-runners. That's a reason why Clinton drew a packed crowd of scribes to the Senate Press Gallery on Wednesday. The scribblers were anticipating something Obama-related, even if it were just a reaction from her about his running.
Clinton said nothing more about Obama -- because no one asked.
On NBC's "Today" show Wednesday morning, host Matt Lauer asked Clinton: Is Obama "completely qualified to be commander-in-chief, in your opinion?" Clinton dodged a direct answer. "We're going to have a vigorous debate, I think, on both sides with both parties, in this primary season. And the voters will make these decisions. That's what's so great about our system," she said.
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All the Senate Democratic presidential hopefuls plus Hagel will be voting in the coming weeks for a resolution opposing President Bush's sending more troops to Iraq.
The resolution will pass -- that seems a safe prediction -- but the win has to be pulled off in the right way for it to influence Bush. Biden and Hagel, with Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), said their goal was to get a majority vote from both sides of the aisle.
The U.S. "strategy and presence" in Iraq, the resolution states, "can only be sustained with the support of the American people and bipartisan support from Congress."
The latest proposals have to do with capping U.S. troop levels. Clinton wanted to freeze the number of troops in Iraq at their Jan. 1 level and require congressional approval for more. She also wants to send more soldiers to Afghanistan to keep U.S. gains there secure. Dodd also is calling for congressional approval before any escalation.
On page 302 of his book, The Audacity of Hope, which he finished last year, Obama wrote that it was in the interest of the United States and Iraq to begin a phased withdrawal by 2006. In his Nov. 20 Iraq speech in Chicago, Obama revised his timetable, calling for a phased redeployment to begin in four to six months. In an interview Sunday, Obama said a phased withdrawal should start "four to six months from now.'' I asked Obama's office when the clock starts, and I was told it was in November.
Obama's latest: "I not only favor capping the number U.S. troops in Iraq, but believe it's imperative that we begin the phased redeployment I called for two months ago, and intend to introduce legislation that does just that."
Clinton said she was not sure she could pass her plan. "I can count," she said.
Can Obama? The race is on.