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Rep. Christopher Murphy bet early — even before the protests and fighting exploded across the Middle East and Libya — that America’s wars would help drive voters to the polls in 2012.
The 37-year-old Connecticut Congressman’s Senate campaign is driven by the same anti-war sentiment that fueled his original run for the House in 2006. Both his Senate announcement video and early campaign advertisements prominently cite the need to end the decade-old conflict in Afghanistan.
Talk of war virtually disappeared during the 2010 midterm elections. But prolonged military action in Afghanistan, coupled with recent fighting in Libya, an unusual alliance between the tea party movement and liberal groups, and the looming presidential election, could soon re-establish war as a central force in the national political debate. Murphy hopes so, anyway.
“More political leaders should be talking about the war in Afghanistan,” he told Roll Call last week. “I understand the economy is still issue No. 1 in this country. But we need, both in Washington and in the context of political campaigns, to be highlighting the fact that this war has gone on too long and cost us too much both in terms of lives and financial resources. People here in Connecticut want this war to come to an end. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to talk about this issue in the context of this campaign.”
Murphy may be one of the most outspoken war critics among the top-tier Senate candidates, and it’s unclear whether the strategy will ultimately work given that his state’s unemployment rate, like the nation’s, is hovering around 9 percent. But Murphy and conservative groups alike have begun to argue that Americans cannot afford the financial cost, if nothing else, of continued military action.
“Obviously the economic crisis makes it more relevant to people than ever. It’s also a way to talk about the issue in non-partisan terms,” said Robert Greenwald, president of Brave New Foundation, the California-based liberal group behind a campaign called “Re-think Afghanistan,” which produces anti-war viral web videos and related petitions.
“The tea party folks have mostly been quiet on Afghanistan, but they have come out against the cost. You say to somebody, ‘One troop in Afghanistan, one year, $1 million dollars.’ It really does hit people. And we could wind up spending $1 billion in Libya.”
Beyond cost alone, timing could help propel the war into the national spotlight as well. President Barack Obama has outlined plans to begin a troop drawdown beginning in July, a move tied to conditions on the ground. But some elected officials aren’t so sure there will be a significant change come this summer.
Murphy was among more than 80 Members (but the only Senate candidate) to sign a March 16 letter urging Obama to follow through on the summer drawdown plans.
“It is time to focus on securing a future of economic opportunity and prosperity for the American people and move swiftly to end America’s longest war in Afghanistan,” said the letter, which was signed largely by progressive House Democrats, with a prominent exception: tea party favorite Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
Paul’s presence on the letter is not a complete surprise. Tea party conservatives across the nation have been reluctant to support continuing military action abroad, because of both cost and the traditional anti-intervention conservative philosophy.
And the recent action in Libya may have pushed some over the edge.
“We’re already at war, we’re broke, and we’re bombing a nation that’s at war with itself,” said Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party.
On Afghanistan, she said there was some evidence of a growing frustration among grass-roots conservatives.
“I think there’s dissatisfaction with it being drawn out,” Varley said, noting that cost is always a concern. “The tea party has this aurora of patriotism, but also, we have to slash and burn our budget. If we had good stories coming out of Afghanistan, then we might feel a little less of that cut, cut, cut, feeling.”
If polling is any guide, the American public largely agrees.
Just 31 percent of respondents in a mid-March ABC/Washington Post poll said the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting “considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits.”
In that same poll, 73 percent of respondents said that Obama should withdraw a “substantial number” of combat forces from Afghanistan this summer. But just 39 percent said they believed that American leaders would do so.
Indeed, the politics of war in 2012 may ultimately depend on what happens this summer, according to Ashwin Madia, a former Marine who now serves as the interim chairman of the progressive organization Vote Vets.
“I take him at his word,” Madia said of Obama’s summer drawdown. “I assume that’s going to happen. But at the same time, I’m no fool. I recognize there’s going to be consequences if that happens, and it’s going to be driven by conditions on the ground. I don’t know what’s going to happen at this point.”
Regardless, Vote Vets, which spent more than $3.2 million to influence the 2010 midterm elections, will ensure the issue is not forgotten on Election Day.
“You bet we’re going to be doing our best to make sure that Afghanistan is front and center as we go into these elections,” he said.
Likely presidential candidate and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour may have already elevated the issue among Republican primary voters. He has been increasingly critical this month of action in Afghanistan and Libya.
“What is our mission?” Barbour said recently. “How many al-Qaida are in Afghanistan ... Is that a 100,000-man Army mission?”
And with the first GOP presidential debates scheduled to begin in early May, the war will almost certainly be a high-profile issue for much of the primaries given the timing of Obama’s decision.
But back in Connecticut, 20 months before the polls open, Murphy says the lack of attention to Afghanistan is “remarkable.”
“When I hold a town hall meeting, there are places where the Afghan war doesn’t come up at all,” he said. “I hope people understand that when we’re spending $100 billion per year in Afghanistan, that’s money we can’t spend to rebuild our economy at home.”
He continued: “2012 will mark a 10-year commitment in Afghanistan. I don’t think the people of Connecticut ever anticipated spending a decade in Afghanistan.”