When Hillary Clinton, seriously set back by the Iowa caucuses, landed in New Hampshire to resuscitate her presidential campaign, the first question from the audience was unsparingly blunt: "When will the troops come home?"
She replied, as she has done before, that she hopes to begin bringing them home a brigade or two a month, but will leave enough troops in Iraq to protect themselves, American civilians and Iraqis who have helped the United States. That's not too much different from what has been proposed by Barack Obama and John Edwards.
In other words, no matter who wins, Democrat or Republican, get ready for an extended war, a nagging pain that won't go away. That simple, infuriating thought has been lost in the deluge of analysis, vote figures, handicapping and moments of drama that accompanied the Iowa caucuses and are carrying over into the frantic few days before New Hampshire's primary.
Neither the weekend's debates nor Clinton's furious effort to reduce Obama's lead in the polls gave comfort to Americans who want to end the war. For those of us who do, the most significant article of the weekend appeared on the back page of The New York Times Week In Review, saying "numbers don't lie: for those in uniform, 2007 was the deadliest year since the invasion." The centerpiece was a powerful chart, in color, breaking down the 2,592 recorded deaths suffered last year by American and other coalition troops, Iraqi security forces and Kurdish-controlled militias.
And as the candidates invoked the vague phase change, also lost in the process was the important point that a decent health insurance plan and the war are intertwined. In other words, the war is so expensive that it will be impossible for a Democratic president to keep campaign promises regarding federal health insurance while the conflict continues.
The man who asked Clinton about the war opened a question-and-answer session that lasted considerably longer than her speech. She clearly was determined to reintroduce herself in a state where she once had a strong lead in the polls.
She spoke in a large hangar at the Nashua airport, north of Manchester, after finishing third to Obama and Edwards in Iowa. It was a damaging finish, made worse for her by the size of Obama's win and by his powerful, moving victory speech afterward.
Her New Hampshire staff had labored to give the hangar the ambiance of victory. A big American flag hung on the closed doors of the chilly building. A bus was to the right of the flag, painted in blue, red, gray and white, with a slogan on the sides: "Big Challenges, Real Solutions." It was there to take the Clintons-Hillary, Bill and Chelsea-off on a New Hampshire tour that the senator hopes will save her campaign. "We got in at 4:30 [a.m.]," the former president told the crowd, which occupied almost half the large hangar. "I think my girls look good, don't you?"
I was happy that the first question was about the war, and that it was asked in such a direct way. When the campaign began, the war was a critical issue. But it has come up less and less frequently in past weeks as Democratic candidates concentrated more on health care and other domestic issues.
There are reasons for this. Casualties are down. TV news directors and their counterparts in the print media and online have a short attention span and suffer from war fatigue. The economy is troubled, home foreclosures are growing, and health care horror stories abound. The polls show increased public concern about the domestic issues.
Yet, as the University of Michigan's Juan Cole pointed out in his blog Informed Comment, the fact that the war "is tied with health care does not mean it isn't important to voters. It means it is as important to them as the health of themselves and their loved ones, which is to say it is very important."
The war's cost is tremendous. Economist Scott Wallstein estimates it so far at close to $1 trillion. Economists Linda Bilnes and Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and former Clinton administration adviser, said the figure is twice that much. A 2006 study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service put the cost at $2 billion a week.
Universal health care would also be very expensive. Various studies by advocates estimate the cost over several years at between $34 billion and $69 billion. Even so, it would be cheaper than the war.
The issue is tremendously important here in New Hampshire. The state is recovering from an industrial decline, with high-tech business coming in. "It started in the '90s," Mike Vlacich, director of the New Hampshire Division of Economic Development, told me.
But I got a gloomier view from Jay Ward, political director for the Service Employees International Union, which is supporting Edwards in the state.
It's true, Ward said, that high-tech jobs have increased, but not enough to take up the slack from the loss of manufacturing, particular the paper mills in the northern part of the state. "These jobs allowed people to work 40 hours a week and send their kids to college," he said. The unemployment rate remains comparatively low, he said, but the jobs are in retail and service-low paying and with minimal benefits. "There's underemployment, which means you have three jobs," he added.
These people need a system of Medicare for all-a form of which is advocated by Obama, Clinton and Edwards, the three real post-Iowa survivors among the Democrats.
There are differences in their plans, but they are all good.
The candidates also say they are against the war and want our troops out. But Clinton wants withdrawal in phases and wouldn't have most troops out until 2013. After that, she would keep a residual force in Iraq. Edwards would withdraw 40,000 to 50,000 immediately and all within nine or 10 months, another phased pullout. Obama, who-unlike Clinton and Edwards-opposed the invasion, would withdraw all troops before 2010, again in phases.
All these plans would leave troops there for a substantial time. And that's assuming that the winner can keep a withdrawal promise. It's easy to imagine what will happen when the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the so-called wise men and women of the Washington foreign policy establishment start "talking sense" to the new president, urging him or her to keep a strong force in Iraq to guard strategic interests and oil supplies in the Middle East and to protect Israel. Only Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich favor an immediate pullout.
Republicans John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney all support the war and oppose even setting a timetable for withdrawal. And none of them favor a decent federal health insurance plan.
These Republican ideas are not acceptable. But the Democratic candidates must recognize we can't have speedy action on better health insurance while our troops remain in Iraq.
Bill Boyarsky is a lecturer of journalism, columnist and author.
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