A Non-Story Remakes the Race

By Peter Beinart
Monday, December 3, 2007

Last month, Katharine Q. Seelye of the New York Times live-blogged the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas. As the discussion bounced from subject to subject, she marked the topic and the time, then gave her thoughts. At 8:34 p.m., it was driver's licenses; 8:55, Pakistan; 9:57, the Supreme Court. By night's end she had 17 entries totaling almost 1,500 words. And she hadn't typed "Iraq" once.

The candidates mentioned the war, to be sure. But it never took center stage. And with the first primaries just weeks away, that's become the norm: Iraq wasn't a major focus at last week's Republican YouTube debate either. In the biggest surprise of the campaign so far, the election that almost everyone thought would be about Iraq is turning out not to be. And that explains a lot about which candidates are on the rise and which ones are starting to fall.

The reason Iraq is fading is simple: Not as many people are dying there. Fewer deaths mean fewer front-page stories, and fewer front-page stories mean less discussion on the cable shows, which were pretty sick of the topic already. Turn on the television these days, and you're more likely to think America is at war with illegal immigrants than with insurgents in the heart of the Middle East.

And that's showing up in the polls. Between June and November, according to NBC and the Wall Street Journal, the percentage of Americans citing Iraq as their top priority fell eight points. A Post survey recently reported a six-point decline since September. When a CNN/WMUR news poll asked the same question of likely New Hampshire voters last month, it found that the percentage of Republicans citing Iraq had dropped 14 points since June. Among Democrats, the drop was 16 points.

The result is that both the Democratic and Republican campaigns are looking more like the campaigns of the 1990s. Start with the GOP. The Republican who has benefited most from Iraq's slide is Mike Huckabee, who this summer was in low single digits in Iowa and is now running neck and neck with Mitt Romney for first place. A few months ago, commentators were saying that conservatives no longer cared as much about abortion, gay marriage and the like; they were more focused on the "war on terror." Rudy Giuliani has bet his whole campaign on that proposition. Romney's competence theme is a not-so-subtle critique of the way President Bush has handled the war. Huckabee, by contrast, has virtually no national security profile. In an Iraq-dominated campaign, it's hard to imagine him as a serious contender. But as the war has receded, it has been supplanted by domestic issues and by questions of personality and character. And in that '90s-like environment, Huckabee -- the truest social conservative in the race, and the guy you'd most like to drink a root beer with -- is smiling his way into the top tier.

On the Democratic side, the impact is even more striking. Iraq, bizarrely enough, was a great issue for Hillary Clinton. True, she had voted for a war that everyone in her party now hates. But when asked which candidate they most trusted on the war, Democrats consistently chose her, often by huge margins. Iraq played to Clinton's biggest asset: her reputation for experience and strength. Iraq reminded Democrats of how dangerous the world is, and the more dangerous it seemed, the more they gravitated to the safe choice.

But as Iraq has faded, the mood has changed. Since summer, according to The Post, the percentage of Democrats prioritizing "strength and experience" has gone down and the percentage wanting a "new direction and new ideas" has gone up. That's good news for Barack Obama, who is low on experience but high on charisma. In recent weeks, the Democratic primary campaign has frequently revolved around small, even trivial, issues -- driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, rumors of planted questions at town-hall meetings and dirty tricks -- that supposedly testify to the character of the candidates. And in this changed environment, Obama and John Edwards have managed to sow doubts about whether Clinton is too evasive and too scripted.

When the world is falling apart, people tend not to care about these sorts of things. After all, Americans elected Richard Nixon twice because they thought he could best extricate us from Vietnam. But with Iraq no longer as central, campaign 2008 has become more like the campaigns of 1992, 1996 and 2000, when résumés mattered less and personality mattered more. In the 1990s, the guys with pizzazz won and the guys with gravitas lost: Just ask George H.W. Bush, Robert Dole and Al Gore.

Iraq could make a political comeback, or it could be supplanted by another frightening post-Sept. 11 topic such as Pakistan or Iran. But right now, it's the biggest non-story of the campaign. No wonder Mike Huckabee is smiling.

Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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