How far has General David Petraeus moved the debate on Iraq? His testimony on the surge, and the effects of the surge itself, has made it much more difficult for Democrats to argue for withdrawal and defeat. In fact, at last night's debate, the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination couldn't even commit to a withdrawal -- by 2013:
The leading Democratic White House hopefuls conceded Wednesday night they cannot guarantee to pull all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of the next presidential term in 2013.
"I think it's hard to project four years from now," said Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in the opening moments of a campaign debate in the nation's first primary state.
"It is very difficult to know what we're going to be inheriting," added Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
"I cannot make that commitment," said former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
Hillary had already made the comment before the debate that she couldn't commit to pulling out all combat troops by the end of her first term. For Hillary, who has tried to cast herself as a realist in foreign policy, that position makes some sense. For netroots favorites Barack Obama and John Edwards, though, it sounds like political suicide. The anti-war Left will not easily forgive them for those answers.
Those responses, though, come from the shift that has occurred over the last two months in public perception of the war. Americans don't like to lose wars, and given the successes that Petraeus has generated, more Americans see an opportunity to persevere in Iraq. Leading Democrats realize now that running as the party of defeat when we continue to gain ground may sound good in the primaries, but will be disastrous in the general election.
That's why the frontrunners at last night's Democratic debate couldn't promise an end to combat deployments in Iraq for another five and a half years, a year longer than we've had troops in Iraq up to this point. Petraeus moved the playing field for the Democrats, and last night saw the first attempt to catch up to reality. The rest of the Democrats may have trouble keeping pace.