Midterm elections: Economy pushes war into background

WASHINGTON — Four years ago, Kathy Castor put the war first.

The Tampa Democrat won a seat in Congress in part by pledging to push for a rapid withdrawal of troops from Iraq. She called for the firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and investigations into wartime spending.

"A change in course is needed in Washington," Castor said on election night. "It's time."

The war continues today, and about 5,500 Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Castor, like other candidates across the United States, is focused on something else: jobs.

With the 2010 midterm elections becoming a referendum on the economy, politicians are reacting to voters consumed with troubles at home. After nine years, America has become war weary.

But the winners in November will have to confront decisions on future troop deployment and funding. The question on Iraq that Democrats thought they had answered in the 2006 and 2008 elections may be looming for Afghanistan: Stay in or get out?

With talk of war hardly simmering, the opinions of the electorate may never be realized at the ballot box.

The sudden removal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan following inflammatory comments to Rolling Stone magazine brought the war to the forefront last month. .

"We are in this to win," Gen. David Petraeus said Sunday after assuming control. He noted that June had been the deadliest month for international forces since the Afghanistan war began in 2001, with 102 deaths, more than half of them Americans.

Yet despite mounting troubles, few expect the debate on Capitol Hill to carry over to the midterms in a significant way. Already the issue has been absent in some of the high-profile primary contests across the country.

"It's a huge dilemma that our nation is not paying attention to," said Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and chairman of the advocacy group VoteVets. "Is it worth the loss of life? Is it worth trillions of dollars? Is it worth the stress on the forces? Is this the right strategy?"

Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, fretted that a "wishful averting of eyes" could have detrimental effects if something goes wrong and awakens the public.

"In that case," he wrote in a recent column, "even political leaders who believe in the mission, having been AWOL from the debate, will have difficulty tipping it back."

• • •

Debate has been muted in part by President Barack Obama's decision to compromise. He has committed more troops in Afghanistan but also set the July 2011 withdrawal date — a time line even he says is only a beginning, not an end, to the U.S. presence. Indeed, hopeful signs in Iraq are being overshadowed by increasing difficulty in Afghanistan.

"Many Republicans more or less agree with Obama's prosecution of the wars, while Democratic candidates couldn't make Iraq/Afghanistan an issue without criticizing their own president," said Quinn McCord, managing editor of the Hotline, a nonpartisan tip sheet in Washington.

That has frustrated critics on the left, who say voters gave them a mandate in the past two elections to either end the wars more swiftly or fundamentally shift the focus.

"We control the White House, we control the Senate, and we control the House," said Rep. John Lewis, a senior Democrat from Georgia. "We need to stop this madness. I say it over and over again."

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, said the silence underscores problems the military strategy has faced in Afghanistan. Leaders of both parties, he said, "don't want to admit it's a failed war." He also blames the lack of attention on diminished news coverage.

Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, one of the few lawmakers to consistently call attention to the war and its costs, said, "There is no fundamental distinction right now between the policy leaders of both parties."

Obama, Grayson said, has simply perpetuated the war. And Grayson sees a direct link between the United States' financial instability and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

• • •

There is no greater domestic priority now than the economy. Despite mild economic improvement, millions remain out of work. Florida's 11.7 percent unemployment rate remains one of the highest in the country.

"It dwarfs everything," said Republican pollster David Winston. "It's sort of like looking at a house and there's all these things that need repair, but if the roof's on fire, all these things are secondary. Jobs and the economy are the equivalent of the fire on the roof."

War has slid enough out of view that some polls have stopped asking about it. A review of campaign websites in Florida shows it gets passing mention.

"Rep. (Ron) Klein is ensuring there is tough oversight of our conflicts abroad," reads a brief statement on the Boca Raton Democrat's site.

Four years ago, Klein won his first election on a strong message of ending the war in Iraq.

In an interview, Klein said his constituents have mixed opinions, some thinking the United States should prosecute the war as long as necessary and others wanting an end. "They are saying we have enough problems in the U.S. We can't be the policemen to the world."

Klein's chief opponent, Republican Allen West, is a former lieutenant colonel in the Army and served in Iraq and as a civilian adviser in Afghanistan. West, too, is focused on jobs but plans to draw a contrast with Klein over war issues, including Klein's support for a 2007 resolution opposing President George W. Bush's troop surge in Iraq — a position taken by Florida's other Democratic House members.

Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, said voters are asking about health care, jobs and the oil disaster in the gulf. "The war," he said, "is not necessarily front page."

Meek insists he has not abandoned the issue. It surfaced as the one clear policy difference between Meek and primary rival Jeff Greene in a June 22 debate hosted by the Palm Beach Post.

"I am not in favor of timetables," Greene said. "We should really be talking about getting our mission accomplished." Meek replied that the lack of a timetable is "what kept us in Iraq for so long."

Marco Rubio, the leading Republican in the Senate race, does not address the war among his top issues on his website, though he has talked about it on the campaign trail as being vital to national security. Charlie Crist, who is running as a nonpartisan candidate, merely mentions he will "fight to give the men and women in uniform the proper resources, equipment and training needed to defend our nation both at home and abroad."

• • •

The cost of war can be measured in many ways, most grimly in the number of dead and wounded. Among the nearly 5,500 killed, 280 have been from Florida.

Tens of thousands more have been wounded, putting a strain on military hospitals. At James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, which attends to some of the most serious war injuries, 15,662 war personnel have been treated since 2003. Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg has attended to another 4,500.

Castor, the Tampa Democrat who campaigned against the Iraq war in 2006, said the lack of attention on the campaign trail this year does not mean Congress has shirked its responsibility.

She cites military pay raises and increased college funding opportunities for the military, as well the funding of a new VA hospital in Orlando, which will relieve some of the stress at Haley.

"I think the American people spoke in the last presidential election and set us on a course of responsibly ending the war in Iraq," Castor said. "If folks don't think there is enough progress, they will express themselves."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com.

The Midterms

A series of occasional stories exploring the policy, the politics and the people driving the 2010 elections. Read previous stories at links.tampabay.com.

Midterm elections: Economy pushes war into background 07/04/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 4, 2010 2:24pm]

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