Iraq the Big Issue in New Hampshire Democrat Debate

Democratic presidential candidates traded barbs over the Iraq war in the New Hampshire debate on Sunday night, with former senator John Edwards (N.C.) accusing Senators Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) of failing to show leadership during the recent Congressional debate over the Iraq war funding bill.

Senators Clinton and Obama voted against the bill, but did not make their intentions known until near voting time.

“Others on this stage, (Senator) Chris Dodd (Conn.), spoke out very loudly and clearly,” said Mr Edwards. “Others did not. Others were quiet. They went quietly to the floor of the Senate, cast the right vote. But there is a difference between leadership and legislating.”

Senator Obama fired back: “The fact is that I opposed this war from the start. So you’re about four and a half years late on leadership on this issue.” While still a US Senator, Mr Edwards voted in favor of the 2002 resolution to authorize the invasion of Iraq.

Meanwhile, Senator Joseph Biden stepped up to defend his vote to continue funding the war, saying, “Look, I cannot, as long as there is a single troop in Iraq that I know … if I take action by funding them, I increase the prospect they will live or not be injured, I cannot and will not vote no to fund them.”

Other candidates rejected further military funding, arguing that it only served to prolong the war.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) said the only way for Congress to end the war is to take a hard line and cut off funding. “Just say, ‘No money, the war is over’,” he said. “The money’s in the pipeline right now, enough to bring the troops home. Let’s end the war, and let’s make this a productive evening.”

Former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska) said that no candidate who authorized the invasion of Iraq should be President. “Sure, it’s George Bush’s war,” he said. “But it’s the Democrats’ war also. We have killed more Americans than was done on the 11th of September. More Americans died because of their decision. That disqualifies them for President.”

When asked to explain why they had not read the National Intelligence Estimate before they voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, Senator Clinton said she had been “thoroughly briefed”, while Mr Edwards maintained he had “all the information I needed” to make a decision. However, throughout his campaign, Mr Edwards has said that his vote in 2002 was a mistake, while Senator Clinton, who also now opposes the war, refuses to say that her vote was in error.

Despite their differences, Senator Clinton claimed common ground with her fellow Democratic candidates regarding the war in Iraq. “The differences between us are minor,” she said. “The differences between us and the Republicans are major.”

Mr Edwards then took issue with the term “global war on terror”, which he called a politically charged bumper-sticker slogan. “That’s all it is, all it’s ever been, was intended to do, for George Bush to use it to justify everything he does – the ongoing war in Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, spying on Americans, torture,” said Mr Edwards. “None of those things are okay. They are not the United States of America.”

Senator Clinton disagreed. “I am a senator from New York,” she said. “I have lived with the aftermath of 9/11, and I have seen firsthand the terrible damage that can be inflicted on our country by a small band of terrorists who are intent upon foisting their way of life and using suicide bombers and suicidal people to carry out their agenda.”

The discussion on health care opened with a question regarding the cost of providing universal coverage. Mr Edwards said his universal health care plan would cost $90 billion to $120 billion a year, which he said would be partially funded by allowing the Bush administration’s tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to expire. “I believe you cannot cover everybody in America, create a more efficient health care system, cover the cracks … getting rid of things like pre-existing conditions and making sure that mental health is treated the same as physical health … I don’t think you can do all those things for nothing.”

He took aim at Senator Obama’s recently announced health plan, which he said would not provide universal coverage. Senator Obama, whose plan has been estimated to cost between $50 billion to $65 billion per year, said he would make health insurance more affordable, but not mandatory. “My belief is that most families want health care but they can’t afford it,” he said.

Senator Clinton, who has long framed the cost of her plan in terms of trimming more than $100 billion per year from national health care spending, insisted that the main obstacle would not be cost but politics. “You’ve got to have the political will – a broad coalition of business and labor, doctors, nurses, hospitals – everybody standing firm when the inevitable attacks come from the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies that don’t want to change the system because they make so much money out of it,” she said.

Senator Clinton continues to lead the other main Democratic candidates in recent polls. In a CNN survey of national polls in May, she averaged 41 percent, compared to Senator Obama’s 26 percent, and Mr Edwards’ 14 percent. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found Senator Clinton leading with 42 percent while Senator Obama trailed with 27 percent, and Mr Edwards with 11 percent.

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