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JOAN VENNOCHI

Democrats still fear dissent on Iraq

AGAINST SUPREME Court nominee John Roberts. For the war in Iraq. How long can Democrats like Hillary Clinton walk that political line?

Fearful of the peacenik label, Democrats are still reluctant to challenge President Bush on Iraq, no matter how ugly the news from Baghdad. Opposing Roberts is much easier. It shows that when it comes to social issues like abortion, left-leaning interest groups still hold sway with Democrats who would be president.

The antiwar left is a different story. It's the third rail Democrats fear to touch. The junior senator from New York also has the ''woman problem." No female presidential candidate wants to sound like antiwar mom Cindy Sheehan.

This week, Clinton and Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada did meet with Sheehan in Washington. But to Tom Andrews, a former congressman from Maine who is national director of ''Win Without War," the antiwar group associated with Sheehan, the session represents bare courtesy from Clinton and Reid. ''What are they going to do?" he asks. ''Pull a George Bush? I don't think anyone in Congress was thrilled with the idea of a Camp Casey encampment in front of their offices."

Post 9/11, the perception of weakness on defense is considered poison. That thinking led to John Kerry's tortured ''for and against" the war position during the 2004 presidential election. Now, dissatisfaction with the war is growing, with registered Democrats the most dissatisfied. A recent CBS News poll showed that 85 percent of registered Democrats disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq; 50 percent support withdrawal of all troops.

But on Iraq, a big disconnect exists between what registered Democrats believe about the war and what elected Democratic officials and alleged party leaders like Howard Dean are willing to do. Only two Democratic officeholders -- Representatives John Conyers of Michigan and Cynthia McKinney of Georgia -- planned to be anywhere near the antiwar rally scheduled this weekend in Washington.

Forget about standing up alongside Michael Moore. Merely speaking up against the war in Iraq continues to terrify Democrats. One exception is Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who voted against Roberts and is also a strong, consistent Democratic voice against Iraq. But Kennedy is not running for president.

Democratic senators who are in the presidential contender mix, such as Clinton, Kerry, and Joseph Biden of Delaware, have yet to label their votes to authorize war a mistake, even though the underlying rationale -- weapons of mass destruction -- was long ago revealed as false. Given the reluctance to admit mistakes in Washington, they probably never will. These Democrats, meanwhile, continue to tailor their opposition to the way the war is being waged, not to its underlying purpose or morality.

A Biden opinion piece, published recently in The Washington Post, addressed the Bush administration's ''mishandling of Iraq." Biden called not for troop withdrawal, but for the Bush administration to provide ''a much clearer picture of the way forward." Biden also called for ''monthly oversight meetings with senior administration witnesses to assess Iraq's progress." If that is as brave as a Democratic presidental contender gets, 2,000 US military dead are just a starting point.

Yet when it came to approving a Bush nominee to the Supreme Court, Biden dared not take a chance with Roberts. Kerry, too, opposes Roberts on grounds of high moral principle, but can't muster the same outrage about Iraq, which he recently called ''a low-grade civil war."

As for Clinton, she also opposes the Roberts nomination because of the potential threat he poses to ''civil rights, voting rights, and women's rights." But she is leaving it to her husband, Bill, to raise questions about Iraq, which he did on ABC's ''This Week."

Why will Democrats do what the political left wants on ''civil rights, voting rights, and women's rights" but ignore the left on war?

Maybe it's a matter of time and space.

There has been more than enough time to see what is happening in Iraq, but it is still distant enough to ignore. Two hurricanes also shoved the Iraq debacle off the front page.

The first hurricane pushed poor people, battered by nature and ignored by government, onto our television screens. Even Congress could not ignore the winds of Katrina, and they stirred Democrats, especially, to think about what a Republican president, a Republican Congress, and a conservative chief justice would mean to average Americans.

How long before the winds of war finally touch us, too?

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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