The shadow of the Iraq war is long, falling across the most unlikely places to send chill to remote corners of the Republic – like the race for Congress among three Democrats in Boulder.
Late last summer, I talked at length with the campaign managers for all three hopefuls for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. House in Colorado’s Second Congressional District: former State Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald, entrepreneur and philanthropist Jared Polis; and environmentalist Will Shafroth.
What, I asked them, were the CD-2 voters interested in talking about?
There were three answers: Iraq, Iraq and Iraq.
The voters’ message has not been lost on the candidates. In mid-September, Jared Polis called on Fitz-Gerald – the presumptive frontrunner in the race – to apologize for supporting the war in the Iraq. Polis said he’d always been against it, but that Fitz-Gerald has voted in favor of an early resolution supporting the removal of Saddam Hussein from power.
And in a counter-statement Fitz-Gerald, not wanting to become the pro-war candidate, modestly admitted to being “a strong and courageous leader fighting for change here in Colorado, and demanding an end to the war in Iraq is no exception. Jared Polis is distorting Joan’s record on the war when it is clear where she stands on Iraq – ending this war immediately.”
This sharp confrontation over a relatively minor policy difference is exactly what we expected. The three candidates are all pretty liberal. Their views on the issues are similar. So they must find a way to differentiate themselves in the voters’ minds. In addition, Polis and Fitz-Gerald, who are always found on the opposite sides of any room anyway, don’t mind getting under one other’s skin.
The third candidate, Will Shafroth, is also against the Iraq War (Really? No kidding?). He may believe he can gain by standing to one side, statesmanlike, while the other two duke it out.
There matters stood for a while. Punch, counterpunch, little damage done, end of round one.
Then about ten days ago, Jared Polis announced that he was going to Iraq. The predictable accusations and defenses followed. One exchange on ColoradoConfidential.com went like this:
…. political stunt.
It’s called ‘leadership
It’s called a meaningless gesture made for show….
Whatever the motivation, Polis – an active believer in the political potential of the netroots — blogged relentlessly on the trip. He did a live Q&A from Iraq on ColoradoConfidential. He did regular posts on his own campaign web site, which he cross-posted to three other liberal blogs: SquareState.net, MyDD.com, and DailyKos.com. The Denver dailies did stories.
Polis was getting good mileage out of the trip, lots of favorable publicity. You could hear the steam whistling from the ears of the Fitz-Gerald staffers.
So no sooner had Polis returned to the Purple Mountains majesty when the Fitz-Gerald campaign put out a news release charging that Polis had accepted money from donors who also gave money to the notorious 527 group Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth in the 2004 presidential election. The Swift Boat Vets were a Bush/Republican front group. For those who might have been dead at the time and so didn’t hear about it, the Swift Boat Veterans brought American political discourse to a debased new low by impugning the integrity of the Vietnam war record of Democratic presidential contender John Kerry. Since then “Swift Boating” has become a verb for political skullduggery too despicable to be called anything else.
Tarring Democrat like Polis with the “Swift Boat” brush would be … well, it would be bad.
The Fitz-Gerald campaign said on Tuesday, Nov. 22, right after Polis returned, that Polis had accepted five donations totaling $6,350 from people who had also given to the Swift Boat group. Fitz-Gerald campaign manager Mary Alice Mandarich said in a release, “How does Jared reconcile accepting money from people who not only support the war in Iraq, but did everything they could to destroy John Kerry’s honorable record? First Jared said he would not accept money from lobbyists, but he did. Then he tried to backtrack on his support of vouchers. Now he goes to Iraq to stop the war, but is funding his campaign from people who are perpetuating it. Jared can’t have it both ways.”
Polis’ humanitarian trip to Iraq was suddenly yesterday’s news. And even though Colorado’s a thousand miles from the nearest seacoast, Swift Boats were dominating the Democratic conversation. Again.
Now it was the Polis campaign’s turn to seethe. When I called Polis campaign manager Wanda James about the charge, the phone almost melted at my ear as she said, “This is a ridiculous ploy, and has no bearing on anything.”
And in her own scripted response, James said, “We would be happy to compare donors, Joan Fitz-Gerald has taken over $24,000 from Xcel employees alone and tens of thousands from oil and gas special interests … Now that the war is unpopular, Joan Fitz-Gerald is trying to pretend like she never supported it or backed President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Jared Polis has opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, has been to Iraq and is the only candidate with a specific plan to end it.”
Will Shafroth’s campaign made an early one-sentence entry into the Swift-Boat-money debate, but apparently decided to let the two principals duke it out after that.
There’s no Republican candidate for the CD-2 seat yet. Even if one emerges, most observers think that the seat will be safely Democratic. But the race, which is already shaping up to one of the most expensive in the country, could be an early example of the way the Democrats can orchestrate their characteristic implosion.