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Primary Concern

If last week's sagging poll numbers on Iraq marked the return of the war as a political issue, then Democrats found themselves playing the role of Wal-Mart greeters, gamely ushering it through the door. This month, several House Democrats have initiated resolutions calling on the White House to develop an exit strategy for Iraq. Elsewhere in the Capitol--or, more precisely, in the basement below it--Michigan Representative John Conyers recently staged a mock hearing on the war. (The out-of-power Dems can't convene real hearings.) One "witness" railed against an apparent neocon plot to put the United States and Israel in charge of Middle Eastern oil. Another speaker raised the possibility of impeaching President Bush and argued that the so-called Downing Street Memo, an assessment by British intelligence in July 2002 that the administration had already decided to invade, was as incriminating as the Watergate tapes. From a p.r. perspective, probably the most helpful moment of the day came when a Democratic staffer inexplicably unbuttoned her blouse and began nursing an infant--while the c-span cameras were rolling. At least no one can accuse the party of lacking family values.

For those of us who believe Democrats won't be taken seriously until they beef up their national security bona fides, the spectacle of liberals channeling their most conspiratorial impulses can be too much to bear. "Although the public's perception of Iraq is changing, Democrats cannot become the antiwar party," wrote the Democratic Leadership Council's Marshall Wittmann this week. "Even at the apex of the Vietnam war in 1968, the American people elected the most hawkish candidate." Unfortunately, with antiwar liberals like Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold weighing presidential runs, the chances of Democrats nominating a candidate who doesn't pander to their most dovish instincts appear increasingly slim.

But it would be a mistake to assume that repudiating the war will be the only way to win the party's nomination, or even the most expedient. While the Democratic base will be every bit as vocal and exercised in 2008 as it was last year--probably more so--Iraq is unlikely to be the litmus test some moderates fear.

Just look at what's actually going on in the world of liberal opinion: Earlier this month, John Edwards, who voted for the war, received a standing ovation from liberal activists at the annual Take Back America conference in Washington. In a recent (highly unscientific) poll of potential 2008 candidates on Daily Kos, the preeminent liberal blog, Edwards finished a mere two points behind Feingold, who opposed both the war and the Patriot Act. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid--war supporter, pro-lifer, gun-control skeptic--is emerging as a popular politician in his own right. According to a Gallup poll conducted in late May, about three-quarters of liberals who have formed an opinion about Reid have a favorable impression of him, roughly the same ratio that applies to Howard Dean.

What explains their popularity? The contrast between Edwards and someone like Senator Joe Biden is instructive. Like Edwards, Biden supported the war. Unlike Edwards, Biden has drawn mostly jeers from liberals. Among liberal bloggers, the most typical reaction to Biden's recent announcement that he plans to run for president is a sneering allusion to Joe Lieberman's unfortunate 2004 campaign mantra, "Joementum."

Edwards has positioned himself differently from Biden in two respects. The first is economic policy. In his Take Back America speech, Edwards reprised some of the themes he honed on the campaign trail in 2004--the Bush administration's knack for rewarding wealth, not work, and the "two Americas" that have resulted. More importantly, though, he stridently denounced the GOP's Social Security privatization efforts, its attempts to cut Medicaid benefits, and, most noxious of all, its recent creditor-friendly bankruptcy bill. Biden, it should be noted, has criticized Social Security privatization. But he frequently votes with Republicans on legislation that benefits credit card companies. His vote for the bankruptcy bill is a betrayal few liberals are willing to forget.

Second, Edwards's speech was partisan and aggrieved, if not quite Dean-like in its anger. Edwards derided media "yappers" who claim Democrats need to "figure out how to ... nuance some of their positions." After a brief riff about the importance of spreading freedom and democracy throughout the world--not exactly partisan red meat these days--Edwards closed with a confession. "I got to get this off my chest," he said to laughter. "While we're working on democracy over there, we got a little work to do on democracy over here"--an allusion to liberal suspicions of rampant vote-suppression and fraud in 2004. Biden, by contrast, epitomizes the kind of reasonable centrism liberals believe Republicans have exploited on everything from tax cuts to the war. (In many cases, they're right.) Liberals particularly detest his occasional shots at Dean. "Let's also not forget that [Biden] was one of the ones demanding that Dean back away from his statements about Republicans," wrote one Daily Kos reader in response to Biden's presidential announcement.

Obviously, it's not that liberals don't care about the war anymore. It's that a candidate's position on the war ultimately tells them less about what they really care about than the candidate's economic agenda or even his rhetorical style. And what liberals really care about is that a candidate share their view that the administration is fundamentally irredeemable: It can't be reasoned with; it must be beaten, preferably in humiliating fashion.

For the most part, liberal Democrats are willing to compromise in pursuit of this goal. In 2004, for example, they recognized that the country was to their right on national security, which, they assumed, would be a key issue, and so they nominated a war hero. What liberals can't abide is gratuitous compromise. And since, unlike on national security, they believe the country is closer to them than to the GOP on most economic issues--again, with much justification--Biden-like compromises on issues like the bankruptcy bill are anathema.

For Democrats, in other words, the key divide in 2008 won't be ideological so much as it will be characterological. That's a good sign for candidates who supported the war, such as Edwards and even Hillary Clinton. And, considering the alternative, it's an even better sign for the party.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.