Folks who came to the Wake Progressive Democrats meeting in Raleigh last week hoping to learn where Congressman Bob Etheridge stands on the war left shaking their heads. Whether we should be in Iraq, Etheridge said, is just not his issue.

His issue, he told some 50 of his fellow Democrats, is veterans. His 2nd congressional district includes all of Fort Bragg and all of Pope Air Force Base, he emphasized. (It also includes part of Raleigh and southern Wake County.) So he was pleased to announce the formation of a veterans caucus within the state Democratic apparatus and to rip the Bush administration for cutting veterans’ benefits, including health care, by a total of $6 billion over five years. “It’s easy to be a sunshine patriot when it doesn’t cost any money,” Etheridge said of the Bush war team.

But as to whether Bragg, Pope and other U.S. armed forces should’ve been sent to Iraq in the first place, Etheridge was clear: He voted to send them, and he’s not inclined to reconsider his vote. “Hindsight’s 20-20,” he told one questioner, leaving her to guess, however, what his own hindsight might reveal. “It’s easy to second-guess a lot of things,” he added later.

To another questioner, who asked about bringing the troops home on a timetable, Etheridge said: “Our men and women are in harm’s way right now. I don’t want to put them in more trouble with a date certain [for withdrawal].”

Etheridge did say that he’s reading a book about the war (Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael R. Gordon of The New York Times and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor), which relates “some of the opportunities we missed.” His own quick visit to the Green Zone in Baghdad this June persuaded him that “the real problem on the ground” is corruption in the Iraqi police forces. Our soldiers “feel very strongly about what they’re doing, but the real problem is the police,” Etheridge repeated.

But Etheridge several times declined the chance to say what he thinks should happen now. “I think what we need is a plan, so our men and women can know when they can come home,” he told a third questioner. And the president’s mantra of “stay the course,” he complained, “is not a plan.”

Still, he told Shannon Hardy, a leader in the antiwar group Code Pink, members of Congress “can’t do everything” and must pick their battles. His battle was veterans’ benefits. It’s not whether–or where–they fight.

Hardy called it “very frustrating” that her members can’t get an answer from Etheridge’s office when they call to ask about issues like the use of Johnston County Airport for CIA “rendition” flights. (Etheridge said he didn’t know much about it.)

She herself has been calling to ask if Etheridge will co-sponsor a House resolution requiring a floor debate on Iraq, Hardy said. It’s one of the leading antiwar petitions in the House. “You can’t sign them all,” Etheridge told her. “I haven’t looked at that one.”

The Triangle’s other two Democratic congressmen, Reps. David Price and Brad Miller, have been increasingly outspoken in their criticism of the war. But Etheridge doesn’t return phone calls about it.

Etheridge was outspoken with the Progressive Democrats about one thing. If the Democrats don’t win control of the House in this fall’s elections, he said, it won’t matter what they think about any policy question, because the Republican majority simply ignores them.

And he’s worried that in North Carolina, where the only statewide elections are for judgeships, nobody seems to be talking about the election, in which Etheridge faces little-known Johnston County Republican Dan Mansell in November.

He made no connection, though, between the voters’ lack of interest and his own studied disinterest in the major issue of the day.

Indeed, as Etheridge realized that no one was asking about veterans, and everybody was asking about the war, he started checking his watch. The meeting had started at 6:30 p.m. He’d talked for 25 minutes, and at 7:15, Etheridge said he’d “promised the farmers” he’d meet with them at 7. “You’re important,” he said, “but so are the farmers.”

And with that, he was out of there.