Cindy Sheehan for President

Or Senate. The anti-war left seeks a challenger for Hillary Clinton

They came with one request: They want Clinton to embrace a Senate resolution, sponsored by Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold, urging President Bush to submit to Congress a timeline for withdrawal. To activists, Eager says, the measure "is an immediate, concrete thing she could and should do. It's not a radical thing to ask the president for an exit plan."

Clinton, however, has yet to respond. (In fact, only one senator, California Democrat Barbara Boxer, has signed on to the bill.) Says Eisenberg, who also attended the September 26 meeting, "I can only conclude the senator is just not interested in our message."

As Clinton defenders tell it, the anti-war movement has reduced her positions to the simplest measures—her initial vote, as well as her stance on immediate troop withdrawal. In reality, though, the senator has cast dozens of votes. She's done what she considers best, her aides say, based on talks with military experts and American soldiers, as well as two visits to Iraq. Mostly, they argue, her record reflects a constant criticism of the administration's handling of the war, from its inadequate supply of Humvee armor to its improper military strategy.

Sheehan and her fawning fans in Brooklyn
photo: Steven Sunshine
Sheehan and her fawning fans in Brooklyn

Consider her work on the Senate Armed Services Committee, for example, which conducts regular hearings with the military's leadership. Clinton has often been the committee member to ask tough questions or outline tough realities. She told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a recent hearing that the administration's Iraq strategy "has neither benchmarks nor results that we can see which lead us to believe it's a strategy that's working." And last year she complained to Rumsfeld about the penchant for keeping secrets from the public, demanding the skinny on whether "a second Bush administration may carry its preemptive war strategy to five or six nations."

Just last month, Clinton, along with 39 other Senate Democrats, wrote a letter to President Bush expressing their concerns that Iraq "would become a haven for radical fundamentalist terrorists," and ordering him to "provide a strategy for success." The letter cited a "need to change the [war's] course" and requested answers to "critical questions"—such as a figure on the amount of money that taxpayers will have to spend or an estimated date when Iraqi troops will be adequately trained.

"Senator Clinton has said repeatedly that she disagrees with the way the president has used the authority granted to him," says Philippe Reines, her spokesperson, "and she has been very critical of the way he has prosecuted this war."

As for calls for swift troop withdrawals, her aides say she doesn't favor them. Not because she doesn't want the American troops to come home, but rather because she doesn't believe Iraq could function successfully without the U.S. forces there today.

Clinton, in many ways, looks to be playing both sides of the war debate. On one hand, she has done what anti-war activists call "admirable" work, pushing measures to boost veterans' benefits and supporting military families. On the other hand, the senator hasn't spoken out forcefully against the idea of a preemptive strike, which anti-war activists want her to do.

Douglas Muzzio, who teaches political science at Baruch College, explains that activists "are asking Clinton to do the impossible." Activists tend to see the senator's positions as politically expedient, cold calculations designed to please everyone. But Muzzio sees it differently. "I think she believes in her votes. She is like a neo-liberal," he says, a true liberal on social issues, a true hawk on defense.

In other words, he says, "she is not their natural ally. She's not their 'it' anyway."

Key activists have come to that conclusion, too, figuring they'll have a better chance of finding an anti-war candidate than of moving Clinton. Already, the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Progressive Democrats of America have begun casting about for a challenger. Some envision the perfect candidate as an anti-war Iraq veteran, like Paul Hackett of Ohio, who announced his run for a U.S. Senate seat last week. Others have a different kind of cachet in mind.

"When I heard the name Cindy Sheehan," says DeBar, the Ossining activist, "I thought, great."

Last month, DeBar, himself a former Green Party candidate, proposed a Draft Sheehan effort on a Green message board. Unlike some Greens who are pushing a Sheehan for President initiative, DeBar wants to see her move from her home state of California to run against Clinton in the New York primary next year. That way, he writes in his post, "she could force a seismic shift in the direction of the Democratic Party."

Activists see obvious potential in Sheehan. The movement's icon did, after all, rescue anti-war activists from hibernation, breathing new life into their cause from the moment she set up her bivouac at Camp Casey. At the Brooklyn Peace Fair, hordes of fans flocked to her as she descended the platform, lining up for pictures, praising her speech, offering to escort her if she ever comes back to town. After Sheehan signed the back of a postcard with "Peace, Cindy," an ebullient middle-aged woman produced it, repeatedly, for all to see.

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