Media Voices for Thursday — December 15, 2005

• Democrats again show why voters don’t trust them on security


Democrats again show why voters don’t trust them on security

By Morton Kondracke

American voters don’t trust Democrats on national security, for good historical reasons — the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, Jimmy Carter’s surprise at Soviet aggression, the party’s 1980s embrace of the nuclear freeze and its lack of support for the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

President Bush rode a 30-point GOP advantage on national security and fighting terrorism to re-election in 2004, but doubts about his Iraq policy have eroded that lead to the teens.

According to a Dec. 1 Gallup poll, voters trust Republicans over Democrats on national security by 48 percent to 32 percent and on fighting terrorism 46 percent to 33 percent. On Iraq, Democrats were preferred by 42 percent to 39 percent.

Last week, the Democrats blew it again, demonstrating why, when there’s danger to the country, people think their party simply can’t be relied on.

Parties choose their leaders and, in the force-averse tradition of George McGovern, Carter and Michael Dukakis, Democrats have chosen Howard Dean as their national chairman, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) as House Minority Leader and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) as their latest presidential nominee.

Last week, just as Iraqis were preparing to risk their lives to run and vote in historic parliamentary elections, these Democratic leaders were seen pronouncing the war in Iraq a lost cause, urging immediate U.S. withdrawal and accusing U.S. soldiers of terrorizing Iraqi women and children.

Dean, in a Texas radio interview, said, “the idea that we’re going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is plain wrong.”

After being attacked as defeatist by Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman — and for being impolitic by some fellow Democrats — Dean claimed his quote was “cherry-picked” and that he meant “we can only win the war, which we have to win, if we change our strategy dramatically.”

But Dean’s original statement was, “I’ve seen this before in my life. This is the same situation we had in Vietnam. … We just didn’t have a victory” and lost 25,000 more lives “because we were too stubborn to recognize what was happening.”

Dean also tried to say that Bush has said the United States couldn’t win a victory — despite repeated Bush statements that he’ll accept nothing less. Bush once said victory wouldn’t come with a surrender as World War II did.

Bush’s pronouncements and policies all operate in the direction of U.S. withdrawals in the context of “victory” — a secure Iraq — whereas Democrats appear focused purely on withdrawal regardless of the consequences.

Last week, Pelosi personally backed the immediate withdrawal proposal of a disillusioned hawk, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), and claimed that a majority of her House Democratic colleagues supported his position.

Seeking to mitigate political harm Pelosi caused, various colleagues claimed that Murtha was not really advocating an immediate pullout of U.S. forces. But in a response to Bush’s latest speech, Murtha said his alternative was “immediate re-deployment” of U.S. forces. “The sooner we get out, in my estimation, the better off we’d be,” he said, adding that withdrawal could be complete in six months.

Kerry, meanwhile, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “there’s no reason that American soldiers need to be going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of night, terrorizing kids and women and breaking historical customs.”

Kerry added that responsibility for home raids should be turned over to Iraqi security forces, but his quote was used by right-wingers to recall his Vietnam-era allegations that U.S. forces routinely committed rape, torture and mutilation.

Kerry advocates a more politically popular policy than immediate withdrawal — a strict timetable for pullouts — but his bottom-line message still is that the U.S. goal should be exiting Iraq, not leaving behind a stable country.

That’s true even for “New Democrats,” whose House leader, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), has drafted a “statement of principles,” calling for the United States to stop assisting Iraqis in fighting domestic insurgents, but battle only foreign terrorists, and to draw down to 50,000 troops by the end of 2006. Even her proposal makes no mention of “victory.”

The Democratic Party once had a tradition of strong foreign policy leadership, established by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It exploded over Vietnam and hasn’t been put together since.

Nearly the lone remaining representative of that tradition is Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who last week stated, even more forcefully than Bush has, the consequences of U.S. failure in Iraq.

“The cost of defeat would be disastrous,” he said, “in the collapse of the new Iraqi regime, civil war in Iraq, regional wars beyond its borders, a victory for (terrorist leader Abu Musab al) Zarqawi and Al Qaeda, which would embolden them to attack other Arab countries and our American homeland, the rollback of the democratic advances in other countries of the Middle East and the painful realization that the lives of American soldiers who have died in Iraq were given in vain.”

Democrats now divide into six basic groups on Iraq. Lieberman is alone in defending U.S. resolve. A small group of “constructive critics,” including Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.), advocates specific changes in Bush policy to achieve success. Bush lately has shown willingness to adopt some suggestions from this group.

A large group, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), is content to concentrate on Bush failures, without offering positive recommendations. And there are two groups advocating withdrawal — one phased, the other immediate.

A sixth group might be characterized as “floaters” — moving from one group to another. These include the party’s 2008 presidential frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who previously supported the war, but has been forced by loud criticism from the left to join the Reid bloc of nonconstructive critics.

With a few exceptions, the Democratic Party has put itself in the position of being invested in U.S. defeat in Iraq. The main body of party leaders seems so hostile to Bush and his policy that it wants to be vindicated by collapse.

It’s a terrible place for a political party to be — in effect, rooting for its own country’s failure. And it’s utterly unnecessary. If Democrats believe that Bush is destined to fail, all they would have to do is wait and reap the political benefit. Why do they act as defeatists? The only explanation is: They can’t help themselves.

  • Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.
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