“[The Republicans] try to convey that image of the Democrats as weak on defense. I don’t think we should take that. There is no party position on the war, much to the dismay of our grassroots constituents.” — House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, earlier this week.
Talk about a weak defense. Voters who worry that the Democratic party is not sufficiently serious about national-security concerns are not going to be reassured by the knowledge that the Democratic party takes no position on the war. (ANWR, they care enough about to take a position. Prescription drugs. Miguel Estrada. The war? They’re still thinking.) Opponents of the war are not going to be pleased by Rep. Pelosi’s implicit admission that the base of the party hates this war, or her implication that the party would express that hatred if not for fear of taking a position that looks “weak on defense.” After the Democrats’ dismal showing in the 2002 elections, the left wing of the party decided that its mistake was precisely to lack the courage of its antiwar convictions. Pelosi herself has at various points voiced that critique. Now the Democrats are back to square zero.
Some political analysts have claimed that support for both the war and for President Bush will fall if the war turns out to be longer and more difficult than people expect. (Bush’s speech Wednesday night, you may recall, included a warning that the war might not be the cakewalk that some predict.) That is probably true. Yet even here, the chief political danger may be to the Democrats. If there are setbacks in the war, Democratic opponents of it may be unable to restrain themselves from saying they told us so. Other Democrats will be unable to resist the temptation to increase their criticisms of the president. (It took very little in the way of setbacks in Afghanistan for critics to pronounce it a quagmire.) My guess is that support for the war, and for Bush, will fall just enough for Democrats to underestimate the political dangers of criticizing either.
Neither outspoken dovishness, mealy-mouthed straddling, nor me-tooism will solve the Democrats’ political problem on national security. The party has two real choices. It can reinvent itself as a party that thinks seriously about foreign-policy issues and has its own distinctive and compelling answers to them. If it follows this route, the party will have to be willing to use force to promote American interests and to project moral confidence about American power. Or the party can hope that national-security issues cease to matter to American voters.