Heading into the 2008 elections, President Bush’s management of the war in Iraq has given the Democratic Party a huge opportunity to compete with Republicans on the issue of national security — an issue the GOP has used to its advantage for the better part of several decades.
But the Democrats’ presidential candidates, congressional leaders and grassroots allies seem determined to blow it. With each passing day, they are taking steps and using rhetoric that will rekindle public fears that the party can’t be trusted to keep America safe in a turbulent world.
The problem lies at the base of party politics, where a new “iron triangle” is pushing the party leftward — rich donors like George Soros, grassroots groups like MoveOn.org and bloggers like the Daily Kos.
The donors provide the money, the groups provide the people and the bloggers provide the rhetorical firepower of Democratic politics. Together, these interests demand that the Democrats, who regained control of Congress in last year’s elections, do whatever they can to end the war.
In recent days:
- MoveOn.org labeled Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, as “General Betray Us” in a controversial New York Times ad. Facing blistering criticism from Republicans and some Democrats, the group refused to back down and, in fact, has happily engaged in a war of words over the ad with its opponents.
- Front-running presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested, after listening to Petraeus’ congressional testimony about military progress, that she did not believe him. Other leading Democrats voiced similar skepticism through two days of hearings.
- Key congressional Democrats vowed to hold funds for the military hostage to their efforts to end the war. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd said he would use legislation to provide needed Iraq-related funds as a lever to force troop withdrawals.
To be sure, Americans remain unhappy with the war and would like it to end. But that doesn’t mean they support the rough tactics and slashing rhetoric of the Democrats and their allies.
For one thing, Americans do not seem to share the doubts about Petraeus. Three-fifths of Americans think favorably of him, according to polls, and nearly three-fifths who read or heard about his congressional testimony support his recommendations to maintain current troop levels well into next year.
For another, the polls show, Americans increasingly recognize the dangers inherent in a deadline-driven withdrawal from Iraq, which include the prospect of a new safe haven for terrorists and the likelihood that Iran will seek to fill the void in Iraq that a U.S. withdrawal would create.
All this may explain why, even with an unpopular president from an unpopular party, leading GOP candidates for president continue to run even with Clinton in hypothetical match-ups.
Democratic leaders surely recognize what’s at stake as they try to regain the White House next year, just as they foresaw the political impact of national security when they tried to defeat Bush in 2004.
Back then, many leading strategists flocked to the candidacy of Gen. Wesley Clark, hoping a military leader could boost the party’s bona fides on national security. When the general flamed out, they moved to Sen. John Kerry because they believed his service in Vietnam would do the same thing.
In that campaign and through today, Democrats have sought to avoid a key political mistake from the Vietnam period. Rather than demonize the troops, they have always said they “support the troops” but oppose the war.
But now, as Democrats have failed to stop the war, force a change in mission or require a troop withdrawal, frustration is boiling over within the “iron triangle.” Pressure from the Democratic base of funders and activists explains the recent spate of harsh tactics and rhetoric.
For Democratic candidates, the road to the White House first moves through party caucuses and primaries in which the “iron triangle” will exert enormous pressure for candidates to adhere to its orthodoxy and take uncompromising stands on Iraq.
But the path to election moves through Middle America. Whether mainstream voters will feel comfortable with the Democratic candidate who has survived the primary season is an open question.