This fall has been in many respects a Republican season of discontent, but the Democrats seem to be in worse shape, if their recent pronouncements on Iraq are any indication. On successive days earlier this week, three of the party’s most prominent figures provided samples of the latest Democratic thinking, and the results weren’t pretty.
On Sunday, John Kerry was interviewed on CBS’s Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer. Besides criticizing President Bush for not doing what he in fact is doing — setting “benchmarks” for success in Iraq, gradually turning over security to the Iraqis — Kerry implied that American troops were the oppressors of the Iraqi people. He said: “There is no reason, Bob, that young American soldiers need to be going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of night, terrorizing kids and children, you know, women, breaking sort of customs, the historical customs, religious customs, whether you like it or not. Iraqis ought to be doing that.”
American soldiers are engaged in a war, one in which house to house searches are not uncommon. Kerry knows this, but the opportunity to grandstand, while sullying the cause, was a temptation too great to resist. Kerry’s language was similar in spirit to the words he used in 1971, when he accused his own comrades in Vietnam of committing atrocities, based on accounts that were largely fabricated.
On Monday, Democratic Party National Chairman Howard Dean uttered his now famous words that the “idea that we’re going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong.” As Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman commented, Dean’s outburst might be the first time a party’s national leader (or the de facto leader, when Bill Clinton is busy overseas) has declared that America would lose a war.
So Dean has made his official break from the position he had taken in the 2004 Democratic primaries, in which he maintained that President Bush was wrong to go into Iraq, but that the U.S. nevertheless had to see the mission through. Back then, only Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton took the cut and run view, and it was understood that they were playing to highly targeted peanut galleries.
Speaking of peanuts, on Tuesday, former President Jimmy Carter visited West Point to plug his new book about how horrid life in America has become. The cadets treated him respectfully, of course, but he did not return the favor.
Instead, he suggested that the war we are in will never end, no matter what we might be told by those conducting it. “There has never been a single declaration among the higher levels of government now that we ever intend to withdraw completely our military forces from Iraq,” he said. A local reporter wrote that Carter “dismissed as hollow” President Bush’s statements that the American military posture would change as Iraqis begin managing their own security. “My belief, ” he said, “and it may be erroneous … is that the top leadership in this country intends 20 years from now, 50 years from now, we’ll still have a major military presence in Iraq.”
From Sunday to Tuesday, the Democratic message might be summarized as follows: our cause is unjust; we’re going to lose; we’ll never come home. That seems like a much less promising message to sell to voters than “stay the course and we’ll prevail,” which also has the benefit of being closer to the truth.
MEANWHILE, ON THE OTHER END of the party spectrum, Joe Lieberman finds himself facing a possible challenge from his left. Rumors are afoot that Lieberman may be taken on by Lowell Weicker, the John Kerry of the Nutmeg State and the man Lieberman unseated in 1988. And Hillary Clinton may have to contend with a primary challenge from Jonathan Tasini, former president of the National Writers Union and an outspoken critic of the war.
Neither Lieberman, who has been staunch, nor Clinton, who has been shrewd, are likely to be defeated by the forces gathering against them. Nevertheless, they labor under the increasingly angry gaze of the antiwar faction.
Some Democrats, though, are trying to distance themselves from anti-warriors like Dean, and from House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who endorsed immediate troop withdrawal recently, echoing the position taken by Congressman Jack Murtha. But the damage has been done: Dean is the national party chairman, and until now at least, that position has meant something in determining the direction of a party. When these Democrats say that Dean does not speak for them, are they speaking for the party — or is Dean? Is Kerry? Is Carter?
No one assumes that Lieberman is.
THE DEMOCRATIC DILEMMA IS well known: to rally enthusiasm and funding, they must appeal to their hard left flank; to rally votes in a national election, they must appeal to the center. Their challenge comes down to how to undermine the mission in Iraq while at the same time seeming to support it.
But it is very difficult to so systematically obstruct a war effort — distorting its causes; condemning its conduct; slandering its leaders; doubting its success; declaring that even if it succeeds it will fail — without giving people a pretty good idea of what you are doing.
The worst part is wondering how much more successfully the war might be going if the country had the benefit of two parties, whatever their differences, equally committed to winning it.