All three top candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination Clinton, Obama, and Edwards are racing to the left, as support for Bush's war policies unravels.
Each is auditioning for the role of Ned Lamont, the victor of the Connecticut Democratic senatorial primary of 2007, and each are hoping to stick the other two with a shared cameo as Joe Lieberman. (None of the three will heed the ultimate outcome of that race which was, of course, the re-election of Joe. Their focus will be: First win the nomination.)
Former vice presidential candidate John Edwards struck the first telling blow of the race to the left on Martin Luther King Day. After sneaking into Hillary Clinton's backyard, he told a New York audience that failure to speak out against the war in Iraq as King himself characterized the avoidance of criticizing the war in Vietnam is a silence tantamount to "betrayal." In that bold pronouncement, he defined himself as the left of the Democratic field, stealing the title from a damaged John Kerry and an absent Al Gore.
Hillary was caught flat-footed by the Edwards foray. Like the Hessians who slept when Washington crossed the Delaware, her aging staff was caught napping when Edwards crossed the Hudson, to vent his anti-war message at the time-honored shrine for such sacraments Riverside Church. Her staff's routine comeback that Edwards was going negative was lame in the extreme. And when Hillary needed to be front and center attacking Bush and trumpeting her anti-war credentials, she was posing for photo ops in Iraq instead.
On her return from Iraq, Hillary found herself playing catch-up as she announced her support for a troop "cap" in Iraq, while opposing a funding "cutoff." What that circumlocution means is anybody's guess.
If the cap passes and Bush sends in troops to Iraq above the "cap" anyway under his powers of commander in chief, will Hillary vote to cut off the funding for the extra troops or not? If yes, she ruins her hard won hawk and centrist credentials. If not, she will find herself supporting only a symbolic, perhaps unenforceable troop cap. Remember the division of powers: Bush is commander in chief. The Congress controls the funding.
This ultimate vote, to cut off funding for any troops Bush sends to Iraq will become the new litmus test the left will apply as it searches for a candidate. Forget the 2002 vote to authorize the war. It's gone and done with.
And Hillary and Obama will likely flunk the test. Both will worry that such a cutoff would not play well in November and neither wants to be accused of undercutting our military during a war. Anti-war activists will berate them for this failure, noting that they helped to propel the Democrats to a Congressional majority just so they could act decisively to curtail war funding, rather than just symbolically to express an opinion.
Edwards, for his part, doesn't have to. He's not a Senator. He can say whatever he wants. So Edwards is the inevitable winner of this race to the left, because he is not a sitting U.S. Senator. He can posture on the left all he wants while Hillary and Barack have to face the reality of voting against paying for the troops.
Edwards can attack the troop surge all he wants and condemn the "silence" of the two lambs that oppose him. In doing so, he becomes the left of a triangular field of candidates, a healthy place to be in a Democratic primary.
John Edwards had been in search of a place to stand from which to move the Democratic primary. As the one-thousandth white male to run for president, he did not have the credentials of the first black or the second woman to have a realistic chance of winning the office.
But now Edwards has defined his candidacy and, in the process and with the help of Bush's troop surge, begun to define the race.
Hillary and Obama still enjoy huge advantages in the race. They will raise the most money and have demographic groups on whose loyalty they can count. But Edwards has drawn the first blood.