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Candidates Lacking A Real-World Clue

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By David S. Broder
Thursday, June 7, 2007

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. -- The 18 presidential candidates -- eight Democrats and 10 Republicans -- who came to Saint Anselm College here for a pair of debates this week displayed a remarkable ability to ignore the real-world consequences of many of the policies they were advocating.

Democrats brushed aside concerns about the impact of their votes to cut off funding for the troops in Iraq or the larger implications of a precipitous withdrawal from that country. Republicans were casual about contemplating the use of nuclear weapons against Iran or the effects of foreclosing a path to citizenship for millions of people living illegally in the United States.

Both parties are blessed with a multitude of contenders with attractive personalities and impressive résumés -- people it's easy to imagine in the Oval Office.

But the dynamic on both sides is trending toward extreme positions that would open the door to an independent or third-party challenge in 2008 aimed at the millions of voters in the center.

The danger may be greatest for the Democrats, even though President Bush's failings have put them in a favored position to win the next election. Prodded by four long shots for the nomination and threatened by the rhetoric of former senator John Edwards, a serious contender, the two front-runners, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, have abandoned their cautious advocacy of a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces and now are defending votes to cut off support for troops fighting insurgents in Iraq.

They are able to escape the charge of abandoning U.S. combat troops only because they knew when they voted that their Republican colleagues in Congress, joined by a few Democrats, would keep the funds flowing at least for a few more months. But if Clinton or Obama is nominated, that vote is certain to loom large in the general election campaign.

The broader question of Persian Gulf policy in the likely event of a drawdown of American forces in the coming year is also a blind spot for the Democrats. Beyond exhortations to the weak Maliki government in Baghdad and a vague hope of convening an international conference on Iraq, the leading Democrats have little to suggest that could mitigate a possible foreign policy disaster.

The leading Republicans, for their part, very clearly see the risks of failing militarily in Iraq but have offered no ideas other than a continuation of the Bush policies that have lost most of their domestic support. Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney all endorse what is in effect the status quo -- even when asked to suggest a possible alternative or fallback. None of them appears to have heard of the Iraq Study Group suggestions.

Meantime, they see nothing wrong with raising the possibility of using a nuclear weapon -- for the first time in more than six decades -- as a bargaining tool in dealing with the ticklish situation in Iran. It is hard to imagine a policy more likely to shift international pressure away from sanctions on Iran and against the United States than talk of using the nuclear weapons in our arsenal against targets in that part of the world. Sure, they say nukes would be a last resort, but they seem remarkably sanguine about brandishing them.

But then these are people who, unlike the Democrats, seem oblivious to the reality of 12 million illegal immigrants living permanently in our society, with no hope of attaining citizenship and stepping up to the promise -- and responsibility -- it entails. They find fault with the patiently negotiated congressional compromises in legislation supported by President Bush -- even Romney and Giuliani, who have previously supported such bills.

The catering to the know-nothing wing of their party by so many of these men is a stunning indictment of their readiness to lead 21st-century America, a more diverse and dynamic country than their perspective seems to embrace.

In this dispiriting display of pandering and group-think, two notable contrary examples stand out.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, alone on the stage in voting for the temporary funding bill, declared his determination not to deny arms and protective equipment for the troops his 2002 vote helped send to Iraq -- even, he said, if it costs him the nomination.

And on the Republican side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona defended his and the president's comprehensive and humanitarian approach to immigration -- a grace note in what was otherwise a rather discordant pair of ensemble performances.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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