Soon it will be time for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to face a moment of truth and decide whether he is going to lead the anti-war movement or cave in under administration pressure.
As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) move toward an accommodation with the White House over funding for the war in Iraq, they are also moving toward a civil war within their own party. If Pelosi and Reid agree to give Bush a new bill providing funding for the war without a deadline for troop withdrawal, they will redeem their party's image nationally and show their support for the troops, but they will alienate their left wing. A bitter and divisive battle will ensue one that could cost the Democrats the White House in 2008.
The left, led by John Edwards, is not about to accept mushy language holding the Iraqi regime accountable for its lack of progress, especially if the provision leaves Bush in charge of assessing what progress is being made. Why, they will ask, did we elect a Democratic Congress if the war is just going to drag on?
If Pelosi and Reid cave in to Bush, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will most likely support their compromise to preserve her hawkish credibility and offset doubts about a woman's ability to be commander in chief. With Edwards leading the chorus of critics, the question is: Will Obama join the compromise or ally with the left in voting against it? On this question the success or failure of his candidacy may well hinge.
To date, Obama has portrayed himself to the left of Hillary on the war by reminding voters that he opposed it in 2002 when Mrs. Clinton and John Edwards each voted to begin it. That historical differential will suffice until a more current vote takes place. Then Obama will have to decide which he is a dove or a hawk.
In his appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman," Obama seemed to side with those who do not want a funding cutoff, saying that "we have to be more responsible" in ending the war than we were in deciding to begin it. If he hews to this line and backs the Pelosi-Reid-Bush deal, he will leave Edwards with the entire left to himself. Edwards has already e-mailed his followers saying that "we have 96 hours" to deluge Congress with e-mails to force a schedule for the withdrawal of troops into the war appropriations bill.
If Obama joins Hillary in backing the compromise, he will be inviting Edwards back into the race and what has become a two-way contest will become a three-way affair. With the anti-war platform entirely to himself, Edwards could well upend both Obama and Hillary and win the nomination himself. The anti-war movement is growing, not shrinking, as the casualty lists mount and the war seems endless.
Edwards could warn that Obama and Hillary are the new Nixons, emulating the original in appearing to oppose the war while running for president only to continue it once elected. With Hillary, identifying diverse military missions that must continue in Iraq after she takes office including logistical, intelligence, and training support, hunting down al Qaeda in Iraq, and blocking Iranian infiltration Edwards's argument would have great credibility.
But if Obama moves left on the war and votes against the compromise funding bill, he completely preempts Edwards and, for all intents and purposes, forces him out of the race. With no war issue on which to run, Edwards has nothing to use to compete with the two "firsts" who oppose him the first woman and the first black.
Would Obama's opposition to the war compromise cost him in the general election? Likely not. The compromise will pass with solid Republican support and the bulk of the Democrats voting for it. The war will continue and get less and less popular with each insurgent bombing. By 2008, nobody will mind that Obama voted to end the war. The consequences of having let it continue will be evident. But the possibility that there could have been horrific consequences had Obama's view prevailed back in 2007 will remain in the realm of speculation and theory.
If Obama votes against the compromise, he might be president. If not, he will have to share the anti-Hillary vote with Edwards and may find himself squeezed out between a candidate on the left (Edwards) and a centrist on the war (Hillary).