The question Tom Curry asks is clearly not an easy one to find an answer, for several reasons. The main reason is that Democratic Senators and presidential campaigns are reticent to provide an answer. Carl Levin is a good example of this:
The amendment's co-sponsor, Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters Tuesday that talk of specific numbers was a distraction.
"I'm not going to get into numbers - because it changes the subject from what the issue is," Levin said. "The issue is whether we're going to change course, whether we're going to begin to reduce our troops…."
Of course, another reason is that determinations of this nature are simply difficult to make. It is always difficult to put a reasonably precise estimate on troop levels required to carry out any set of military missions, and 40K-60K estimate for Levin-Reid might not even be accurate. And, as I have discovered, campaigns are not willing to answer what they consider to be hypothetical questions.
Despite this, widespread Democratic unwillingness to even try to give an estimate is worrying. As I have consistently argued, with the possible exception of Richardson, the lack of these estimates continues to result in a blurring of the Democratic candidates running for President, which is a disservice to progressive activists and the American public who want to see an end to the war. Second, as I argued yesterday, opposition to the Iraq war remains a powerful engine driving Democrats toward victory in 2008, and is already causing casualties among Republicans like McCain because of his independent support base. However, without a reasonably precise estimate on the amount of troops Democrats would leave in Iraq, it becomes quite possible to envision a Republican blurring strategy on Iraq in 2008 that would undermine that otherwise decisive advantage. First, the Republican nominee could simply say, ala ultra-hawk Joe Lieberman, that "no one wants to bring American soldiers whom more than I do." Second, the Republican nominee could point out that Democrats themselves have not made it clear how many American troops they would keep in Iraq, and so there is no way of knowing that a Democratic president would be any better on the war of those who seek withdrawal. And thus, the main Democratic advantage in 2008 could be neutralized.
It is in this key sense that providing an estimate on the number of American troops in Iraq is a key toward differentiating not only the Democratic candidates running for president, but for differentiating the eventual Democratic nominee from the eventual Republican nominee. If the Democratic nominee could simply say something like "my plan for Iraq would require a presence of no more than 30,000 American troops," it becomes far, far more difficult for Republicans to blur the lines. Would any Republican be willing to say they would keep less than 30,000 troops in Iraq? Highly doubtful. Even Gordon Smith, Chuck Hagel and Olympia Snowe might not be willing to go that far.
In large part, Democratic victory in 2008 is predicated on guaranteeing that a Democratic President would result in a significantly lower American troop presence in Iraq than a Republican President. It is hard for me to think of an easier way to draw that distinction than to provide a reasonably precise estimate on the maximum amount of American troops that a Democratic President would keep in Iraq: "I would keep no more than X troops in Iraq," is a clear and catchy line for a stump speech, a soundbite, or a 30-second spot. It also is not nearly as hypothetical as the original questions I asked each Democratic presidential campaign. Would any 2008 Democrat really be willing to say, "my plan might result in 75,000 or more troops in Iraq, so I can't provide a figure on the maximum amount at this time"? I don't think so.
I hope these are questions that reporters like Tom Curry will continue to ask Democrats. I also hope, with your help, to craft better questions that will make it easier to get Democrats on record on this matter. If you have any question phrasings that you think would help lead to Democratic campaigns providing an actual estimate on how many troops they would leave in Iraq, please post them in the comments. I am not an experienced journalist, and this is a subject where I could definitely use some help.