- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2009

President Obama’s Afghanistan surge is proving to be good politics - if you’re a Democrat who’s against it.

In Massachusetts, all of the Democrats running in a special primary to fill Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s seat oppose the surge, as do the two top Democrats fighting for the nomination for Ohio’s U.S. Senate seat in 2010.

“I think we all agree this is wrong,” said Rep. Michael E. Capuano, one of the four Massachusetts Democrats who squared off in a debate last week heading into Tuesday’s primary.

Even in conservative-leaning Kentucky, Jack Conway, the leading Democratic candidate for the 2010 Senate race, said Mr. Obama’s plans fall short.

“I do not feel President Obama has adequately explained how he will get Pakistan involved in the effort to combat al Qaeda,” Mr. Conway said.

Mr. Obama last week announced plans to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, with a hazy timetable for them to withdraw beginning 18 months from now. That is six months after the congressional elections.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration understands the differing views.

“The president would be the first to tell you that people can look at the situation and come to different conclusions on both the Democratic and Republican side,” he said. “I think that was in some ways obviously true for Iraq.”

Even before next year’s elections, the issue will come to a head when Congress takes up its next spending bills.

Top members of Congress say the White House will have to send up a special war-funding bill, though the White House was noncommittal on whether it will do that.

One irony is that President George W. Bush used war-spending bills to run circles around Democrats, including the one in 2004 that tripped up his campaign opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who faltered with his famous campaign declaration that he “actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

Mr. Obama was not yet in the Senate in 2004, but three years later he voted against the supplemental spending bill that paid for the Iraq troop surge. He was one of 14 senators to vote “no.” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, now secretary of state, also voted against that spending bill. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, now vice president, voted for it.

A curious case to watch over the next year will be Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Democrat. As a Republican in 2007, he voted to fund Mr. Bush’s surge. He is now an opponent of Mr. Obama’s surge and says the war in Afghanistan is not critical to the battle against al Qaeda.

“This venture is not worth so many American lives or the billions it will add to our deficit,” he said.

Opposing him on Afghanistan and for the 2010 Democratic Senate nomination is Rep. Joe Sestak, who served 31 years in the Navy and retired as a three-star admiral. He called Mr. Obama’s plan “necessary, achievable and justified.”

“It will allow us to finally complete a mission that is as important today as it was eight years ago: the elimination of the al Qaeda terrorists who struck us on 9/11,” he said.

Plenty of Democrats - some of them serving in Congress and some challengers - accept the president’s plan as a well-thought-out answer to a tough problem.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, called Mr. Obama’s plan “balanced” and said the president has a window of opportunity next year to show success on Afghanistan security; a less corrupt, more effective Afghan government; and a government in Pakistan that is stepping up its terrorism-fighting efforts.

“Then I think the American public is going to say to themselves, and our party is going to say to themselves, well it was a responsible policy, a balanced policy, to address a problem not of his making,” Mr. Hoyer said.

He said Democrats are having an honest debate, not “railing” against the president, and he bristled at charges that Afghanistan is now Mr. Obama’s war.

“Hooey. This is an eight-year war that he inherited,” Mr. Hoyer told reporters.

According to a Gallup Poll taken after last week’s announcement, the American public is leaning in favor of Mr. Obama’s surge plan.

Gallup found both Democrats and Republicans in favor - Democrats 58 percent to 35 percent, while among Republicans the margin is 55 percent to 37 percent. Independents are split, with 45 percent favoring the president’s plan and 44 percent opposed.

The problem for Mr. Obama and his base is that Democrats disagree with Mr. Obama’s vague timetable for pulling out, and concern runs deep in Democratic political circles. Liberal commentators question his war logic, and grass-roots groups threaten to try to unseat congressional Democrats who vote for war funding.

“Washington isn’t listening to the American people. We must change Washington by electing a new generation of candidates on a simple platform: Jobs Not Wars,” Democrats.com, one of those grass-roots organizers, said in a fundraising e-mail last week.

c Kara Rowland contributed to this report.

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