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War Comes Home to Iowa | The Nation

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War Comes Home to Iowa

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Des Moines

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Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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It's Veterans Day, and a group of antiwar Democrats have assembled at Chet Guinn's firehouse in downtown Des Moines. Guinn, a retired Methodist minister who still likes to slide down the fire pole, bought the building in 1980 for $1 and converted it into a community hub. When the caucuses roll around every four years, Guinn says, "the fire station comes alive." A picture of Paul Wellstone sits near the pole. Above the wide glass doors in front is a quote from Eisenhower: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

The gathering was organized by Sue Dinsdale, a self-described "pretty typical Iowa mom" from the town of Huxley, just north of Des Moines. Dinsdale became an antiwar activist when her oldest son, who enlisted in the Army in 1999, came home from his second tour in Iraq. "I was yearning for something to do," she says. "I couldn't just sit at home and see other kids go through what he did." Last summer she left her job as membership director at the local YMCA and became a field organizer for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI). She's been hounding Iowa Republicans about their support for the war ever since. It's Dinsdale's job to make sure Iraq stays in the news. As such, she's a good barometer here of public opinion on the war.

I ask Dinsdale if antiwar Democrats have reached consensus on whom to support in the January caucuses. The short answer is no. "There might be six people in a room supporting six different candidates," she replies. In 2004 the ten people sitting in Guinn's spacious living room backed either Dennis Kucinich or Howard Dean. It was a fairly easy call: true believers went for Kucinich, while pragmatists rallied around Dean. This year, antiwar activists are having a much harder time picking a candidate; many of Guinn's guests back Bill Richardson because of his pledge to pull out all troops within a year, but there are Barack Obama and John Edwards supporters here too.

One thing they agree on, though, is mistrust of Hillary Clinton. Everett Fell, a former sportswriter from New Jersey who moved to Iowa as an organizer for AAEI, reflects a common view when he says, "I like all the other candidates, but I have a problem with Hillary."

"At least in Iowa, the peace community is thoroughly disillusioned with her," says Jeremy Jansen, a young organizer from Wisconsin who moved to Iowa as part of AAEI's Iraq campaign. On November 8 nine war protesters, led by Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, occupied Clinton's campaign office in Des Moines for more than seven hours, placing Support the Troops, End the War signs out front and, once inside, reading the names of dead American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. It's telling that they initially chose to target Clinton, along with the office of Rudy Giuliani. "We did this because Hillary voted for the war in Iraq and refuses to apologize for it, because her rhetoric...is not only imprecise but also contradicts her public comments that she won't withdraw all the troops before 2013, because she voted for pro-war with Iran measures...and for her general hawkish foreign policy stances," wrote David Goodner, a senior at the University of Iowa and a member of its antiwar committee. "She floats so quickly, vacillates so often, that I don't think people have any confidence that she will expedite the end of the war," says Ed Fallon, a former state representative and candidate for governor who has endorsed Edwards.

Polls show that the war is still the number-one issue for Iowa Democrats, leading healthcare and the economy by a comfortable margin. While antiwar activists may be opposed to Hillary, the polls are more ambiguous, reflecting an electorate still very much in flux. A number of polls from May through October showed Clinton to be the favorite among that broad sector of Democratic voters who may not be political junkies but who still cite the war as their top issue. In an October 29 University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll, for example, Clinton leads Obama by two points overall but by fifteen among voters whose top priority is ending the war. Yet the ramped-up criticism from Obama and Edwards does seem to be damaging Hillary; in a mid-November Washington Post Iowa poll, Obama not only leads Clinton overall but does better on the question of who would best handle Iraq.

Clinton's generally favorable poll numbers on the war confounded most of the activists I talked to. But it shouldn't be surprising: her campaign has been more aggressive than anyone anticipated in defusing what even her aides describe as her biggest vulnerability--her 2002 vote in favor of the war and her refusal to apologize for it. Since declaring her candidacy, she's cautiously embraced an antiwar position. "If we in Congress don't end this war before January of 2009, as President, I will," she said in February, a month after entering the race. In May she voted to use the Congressional power of the purse to end the war, a step she had long resisted. In July, at a campaign event in Des Moines, she unveiled her plan to move combat troops out of Iraq (while leaving an unspecified number behind for a variety of tasks). A week later she mailed a DVD of that plan to every Iowa Democrat. In October she stumped with liberal lion George McGovern in the antiwar bastion of Iowa City. Former Ambassador Joe Wilson, another early opponent of the war, has been dispatched to the state as a key surrogate. Clinton's campaign has distributed signs that say Support the Troops, End the War on the front and Iowans for Hillary on the back.

Further working to her advantage is the failure of her top rivals to draw a clear distinction between themselves and Clinton on Iraq. War opponents here often point to a September debate in New Hampshire where Edwards and Obama refused to commit to withdrawing all troops from Iraq by the end of their first term, in 2013. That answer gave an opening to the so-called second-tier candidates, notably Richardson, who began highlighting his plan to get all the troops out within a year and has doubled his Iowa staff. "The most important issue affecting this race is the war," Richardson said at the Iowa Democrats' Jefferson-Jackson dinner on November 10. "There is a difference with the candidates on how to end the war." To stress their point, his campaign supporters draped banners that said "2013?" and "GetOurTroopsOut.com." After his speech, the usually attack-shy Richardson campaign distributed Clinton quotes indicating that she might leave as many as 60,000 troops in Iraq for years to come.

Yet rival supporters concede that Hillary has succeeded in muddying the waters. "A lot of Democrats think the difference on the war is between the Democrats and the Republicans," says Peggy Huppert, a former Des Moines party chair and the head of Iowans for Sensible Priorities, which advocates cutting the military budget to pay for domestic needs and which recently endorsed Edwards. "I've heard people say the war is why they're choosing Richardson, for example. But I've heard a lot of other people be more ambivalent. They want it ended, but they think any Democrat will do that."

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