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The Politics of Pessimism
Defeat in Iraq could be a winner for the Democrats.


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The Democrats have thrown down the gauntlet. They are insisting on a deadline for withdrawal, and backing it up with a threat to cut off funding for the troops. Pundits predict that the Democrats will back down sooner or later, because they would never cut off funding in the middle of a war. But pessimism in the electoral center — which gave the Democrats control of Congress in the midterm elections — is starting to give them an incentive to precipitate America’s defeat in Iraq. The Democrats might not be bluffing about the funding.

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For years, the Democratic base has been split between those who supported the war in 2003 — and would support it still, if they thought we were winning — and those who were always against it. Former Clinton adviser Dick Morris thinks that the Democrats are going to fall apart because of their familiar inability to manage this familiar fissure:

The fault lines between those willing to fund the war without a withdrawal amendment and those who insist on a date certain for a pullout will define a growing split within the party…. In the presidential race, Clinton and Obama will face moments of truth in deciding which side of the schism to occupy. They won’t be able to fudge their positions any longer…. The left will not forgive a vote to fund the war without requiring a withdrawal date — but the general electorate will not look kindly on pulling back funds during a war.

Maybe. Something similar happened to John Kerry in 2004. Forced to make the same choice, he tried to fudge, earned the label of “flip-flopper,” and alienated everyone.

But today, something has changed. Both parts of the Democratic base — now a large electoral majority — are unified in their gloom about our prospects in Iraq. Opinion polls are all over the place when it comes to withdrawal deadlines and funding for the troops. But virtually all of those who voted for the Democrats in the last elections think that we are losing in Iraq. And as long as those voters continue to think we are losing, the Democrats will keep their majority — and will almost certainly gain the White House in ’08.

This has created a fairly difficult conflict of interest for leading Democrats. Defeat in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States — and many of them know it. But if they want to maintain their political majority, the Democrats must stick to the position that the U.S. has been defeated — whatever the mix of good and bad news; whatever the setbacks to the insurgency; whatever the progress of the central government in Baghdad; and whatever the successes of Bush’s troop “surge.” They have to spin the news as hard and fast in the direction of inevitable U.S. defeat as Republicans have to spin it in the direction of possible U.S. victory. The Democrats are “invested in defeat,” as Rush Limbaugh says, just as heavily as the president is invested in victory.

What is depressing about this is that we may once again lose a war at home that is still winnable on the field of battle. Thinking coldly, some Democratic advisers must realize that Democrats stand to “lock in” their electoral majority if they precipitate a defeat in Iraq by cutting funding for the troops. A clear U.S. defeat in Iraq would be a political disaster for the Republicans — perhaps a generational disaster. So the temptation to precipitate that defeat may be too strong to resist. That is why the current effort to cut off funding for the troops is so worrisome.  Just a few years ago, Senator Joseph Lieberman represented a powerful current among Democrats — moderate and pro-war.  Now alone among Democrats in his insistence that we must win in Iraq, Lieberman was ostracized by his own party and owes his current term to Connecticut’s Republican voters.  The fissure that cracked the Democratic party in the past has moved rightward — it no longer divides Democrats from each other, but rather America’s pessimists from the optimists.  And the pessimists have a commanding majority.

In fact, the problem facing the Democrats now is a mirror image of the problem facing the Republicans in the ’04 elections. Back then, the electoral center — a vital part of the GOP’s governing majority — was wavering on Iraq. They were not convinced that victory was necessary or even possible, and it was vital for Bush to convince them of both things. Now, the electoral center has shifted to the Democrats — giving them a majority. But the center is still wavering: they are not entirely convinced that defeat is either acceptable or inevitable. So it is vital for the Democrats to convince them of both things.

Here is where the news from Iraq gains a critical political dimension. News coverage has recently turned a bit in the president’s direction. The “surge” appears in some respects to be working. And the Democrats have reacted as if this were the kiss of death.

Even if the Democrats are not crassly playing politics with the troops, the ugly fact is that they have a lot to lose if things start looking positive in Iraq. This is why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — one of the most innocent and pitifully transparent politicians of the last generation — laments the “failed policy” behind this “failed war” at every opportunity — and especially at any mention of good news. For the Democrats, bad news out of Iraq is political insurance, and good news is poison — just as for the Republicans, the reverse is true.

That bodes ill for the war effort. It has become politically expedient for the Democrats to convince the wavering middle that we have been defeated in Iraq. And there may be no better way to convince them of that “fact” than to make it happen.

The pessimism of the center – and the exigencies of political survival — are turning the Democrats firmly against the war effort. And that could kill our chances in Iraq.



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