May 31, 2011 | web only
Rep. Raul Grijalva says voters want jobs -- and out of Afghanistan
Much of the country is already in election-season mode, and it's time for Democrats to think about smart politics as well as smart policy. The enthusiasm gap that lost them the House in 2010 has to be addressed, and waiting much longer would be a disaster.
The White House knows this. It also knows what it has to do about it. Last year, when asked about a potential 2012 challenger to President Barack Obama from his base, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg's answer came in two words: "Watch Afghanistan."
It's not news that the American public -- Democrats, Republicans, and everyone else -- has soured on the war. The national-security rationale has lost its resonance, and the economic and human costs in Afghanistan are crippling our ability to recover from a deep recession.
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll asked people to weigh the costs and benefits of staying in Afghanistan. The poll revealed that 64 percent of those surveyed think the war is not worth fighting, up from 41 percent in 2007. This is the highest figure recorded since polls started asking the question.
The planned withdrawal in July will be an important test of the administration's commitment to winding down the war. The same poll showed that 73 percent of Americans think the U.S. should withdraw a "substantial number" of troops in July. Tellingly, only 39 percent believe this will happen. President Obama can reinforce the beliefs of voters who feel the government ignores their position, or he can give voters a reason to hope, and to vote, next year.
Some pundits think Afghanistan will be obscured by the economy and won't play a big role in the 2012 election. I doubt it. Americans are connecting the dots between federal spending priorities and the pain they feel at home.
In 2012, key Democratic voters may find themselves lacking money to heat their homes through the winter, struggling to put their kids through college without Pell grants, or running out of unemployment benefits with no new job on the horizon. Meanwhile, more than 100 billion of their tax dollars -- as much as $2 billion per al-Qaeda member in Afghanistan, by the administration's own estimates -- are going to a war they feel is not worth the cost. Tell me how that's not a big political issue.
This is a far cry from the vision that got people pounding the pavement for Democrats in 2008. Party strategist Peter Fenn points out that a Democratic base demoralized by an unaffordable and seemingly never-ending war could pose a major turnout problem in 2012.
One of the most exciting developments in the 2008 campaign was the active involvement of young people. In 2010, Rock the Vote, a group aimed at getting younger Americans to the polls, found that 70 percent of these voters were more likely to vote for a candidate who supported withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Some of those surveyed were barely 8 years old when the war started. Democrats need to offer them a vision and a reality to match that will get them knocking on doors and calling voters. Selling them on a war that's already stretched from their elementary school years to their college graduations isn't it.
Some Republicans are catching on. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, one of several Republican members of Congress who has gone on record supporting an end to the war, noted, "It's a very conservative position. It will unite the right and the left, and it would certainly play well to independents." Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul and likely candidate Gary Johnson have already questioned the wisdom of continuing the war. Whatever you think of their politics, they recognize the importance of appealing to disaffected voters in all parties.
Some Democrats, on the other hand, oppose efforts to set a clear date to bring this war to an end. While supporting an open-ended commitment is highly questionable from a policy standpoint, given the less costly nonmilitary alternatives available that could protect Americans and increase stability, such a stance is especially foolish from an electoral perspective. Polls consistently show more than 80 percent of the Democratic base along with a majority of independents calling for an end to the war. Democrats have no need to support a policy that is no longer in the interest of the United States.
The war is now supported primarily by people who will never vote for Democrats, no matter what they say about Afghanistan or any other issue. It's time that reality sank in.
There are some signs that it is. The Democratic National Committee, with its eyes clearly on 2012, recently passed a resolution calling for a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan, starting with a "significant and sizable" withdrawal of troops in July. The U.S. needs to focus on jobs and helping American families, and the DNC was right to make that commitment.
President Obama can, and should, heed the public and the DNC's call for a significant withdrawal in the coming months. The U.S. has spent more than $300 billion, lost thousands of Afghan and American lives, and diminished the al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan. If we still have a reason to be there, nobody's heard it.
Democrats must put forward a bold vision for bringing our troops home and reinvesting in America. Vague discussions about handing over control to the Afghan people in 2014 with some troops on the ground into the indefinite future won't cut it. The U.S. can't afford this war, and Democrats can't afford politically to continue it.
Raúl Grijalva is the U.S. Representative for Arizona's 7th congressional district, which includes Yuma, Nogales, and parts of metro Phoenix and Tucson. Rep. Grijalva also serves as Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.