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Cindy Sheehan, a/k/a the "peace mom," probably never intended to sound like a candidate, but she did. Sheehan, the activist who became the face of anti-war sentiment after camping outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, last summer, had just mounted the podium at the Brooklyn Peace Fair on October 22. And already she was getting political.
"Maybe later we'll talk about your senators," she said, provoking a wave of booing and hissing from the 200-plus crowd. Sheehan, whose 24-year-old son Casey was killed in Iraq in April 2004, was referring to both of New York's "pro-war Democrats," as she calls them. But many in the audience assembled at the Brooklyn YWCA focused on just one: Hillary Clinton, the one who's up for re-election next year, the one who's believed to have her eye on the White House as well.
"Where is Hillary!" shouted an audience member from the back of the hall. The crowd, mostly members of local anti-war groups, went wild with applause, waving posters that read "Hillary Speak Out" and "We ♥ Cindy." Another audience member chimed in, "We love you, Cindy!"
They'd taken a cue from their newfound leader, Sheehan, who has plenty of fighting words for New York's junior senator these days. She first blasted Clinton for backing the Iraq invasion on October 16, writing a scathing article posted on several progressive websites. Sheehan described her as "a political animal who believes she has to be a war hawk to keep up with the big boys." Unless the senator pushes for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, Sheehan wrote, "I will resist [her presidential] candidacy with every bit of my power and strength."
Sheehan repeated these sentiments as she hopped from anti-war vigils to call-in radio shows during a week-long visit to New York City last month. In Brooklyn, she reminded the crowd of her efforts to "call out the pro-war Democrats," explaining, "Hillary Clinton is the leader of the pack."
She then offered up a challenge, urging activists to withhold their support for the popular senator unless she comes around. "It's time to tell your elected officials, 'If you're not with us, you're against us,' " Sheehan said, "and if you're against us, we'll vote you out of office. "
Five days later, New Yorkers who oppose the Iraq war began heeding Sheehan's advice. Some 70 activists gathered outside Clinton's midtown office on the day after American casualties in Iraq hit the grim 2,000 mark. The activists read names of the U.S. fallen and lit candles in their honor.
Carolyn Eisenberg, of Brooklyn Parents for Peace, which sponsored the peace fair, says the action represents just the beginning. "The peace movement here will be doing all it can to get in the senator's way," she adds. Already, there is talk of coordinating protests and sit-ins at all nine of Clinton's district offices. There is talk of seeking an anti-war candidate to take her on next year. There is even talk of drafting Cindy Sheehan, a bit of wishful thinking that, if anything, reflects the level of frustration.
"People are very frustrated that Senator Clinton isn't really addressing this war," Eisenberg says. And so, she adds, they aim to send her a message: "If she positions herself as a hawk, she will find her support among Democrats slipping."
That the anti-war movement has set its sights on Clinton is nothing new. New York activists have long tried to gain their junior senator's earlobbying aides, dropping off peace flyers, forming the occasional picket line. One Albany-based group known as Women Against War even took to making what founder Jeanne Finley calls "a cinema vérité film," featuring individual members enumerating why they oppose her position on the Iraq invasion.
Still, activists have not seen much response to their way of thinking. Instead, says Don DeBar, a veteran activist from Ossining, the senator has appeared out of step with most of her constituents. He notes that the majority of New Yorkers statewide consider the war a "mistake"by 64 percent to 31 percent, according to the latest polland argues that the senator has staked out positions that only further its existence.
Not surprisingly, activists take issue with her October 2002 vote to authorize President Bush to use military force in Iraq. And they find fault with votes the senator has cast ever since. She has backed every war appropriations bill, totaling hundreds of billions of dollars. She has filed legislation calling for expanding the U.S. Army by 80,000 soldiers over four years. And she has yet to push for a firm timetable for American troop withdrawal.
Leaders in the anti-war movement brought their complaints to the senator last month, as part of a Capitol Hill lobbying effort. On September 22, Clinton met with the movement's superstar, Sheehan, in a well-publicized meeting. New York activists, by contrast, got some face time with a legislative aide four days later. Thirty or so people, representing organizations from Syracuse to Albany and Manhattan, showed up at Clinton's office. They crammed a tiny room, surrounding the aide so, in the words of Colin Eager of Buffalo, "he'd feel a little bit of pressure."
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 measuresher 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.
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.
Besides, she has proven to be astute politically, as evidenced by anyone who has seen her work a crowd. At a recent vigil of Grandmothers Against the War, she pressed the flesh with dozens of aging activists, shaking each hand, thanking each volunteer, just like any politician.
"Cindy would be the perfect foil," DeBar says, "because everyone knows who she is." Activists wouldn't expect Sheehan to win in '08, or even in '06, not with Clinton's formidable war chest and high polling numbers. But she could garner enough support next year5 or 10 percentto dip into the senator's vote margin and thus send a message.
Now, if only Sheehan would buy into the argument. "I love your state, but I don't think I want to move here and run for the Senate," she tells the Voice. "I know you can. I know that's what Hillary Clinton did. But I don't know . . . " she says.
What all this agitation means for Clinton is anyone's guess. Her aides say the senator respects the views of anti-war activists. But at the same time, her constituents elected her to apply her best judgment and do what's in the national interest. Do anti-war Democrats want to pick a fight with a senator who at least champions their other causes?
"I plan on voting for Hillary Clinton next year," says Kenneth Barr of Inwood, one of the 70 protesters outside the senator's office last week. As much as he disagrees with her on Iraq, he explains, "I still can't be a one-issue person."
Others like Finley, who laud the senator's record on reproductive rights, are following Sheehan. "What's the alternative for us?" she asks, then answers: "You don't pull the lever."