Cynics charge that Democrats have been following the polls in their stepped-up criticisms of the war. But it’s much worse than that–they have been following their convictions.
It is political calculation that has long kept Democrats from airing what they truly believe about the Iraq war, but with the changed political environment, they finally feel that they can reprise 1968, that glorious year when they helped sink another American war effort. So, Senator John Kerry is back to accusing American troops of “terrorizing” women and children just as he did 35 years ago. The Iraq war offers two great dramas: Iraqis voting in their third national election as they struggle to create a viable democracy, and Democrats shadowboxing with infantile obsessions from the Vietnam era.
More than 100 Democrats in Congress voted to authorize the war because many of them thought it was good politics to do so. It turns out it would have been much better politics to have voted their beliefs, so no flip-flopping would be necessary when they came to oppose the war openly. Part of the Democrats’ indictment against President Bush is that he made them vote on the war prior to the November 2002 election as if to say, “How dare you make us vote at a time when we would be running scared from our own principles.”
All the pressure that had built up from this self-defeating opportunism burst when formerly hawkish Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.), called for an immediate pullout of American troops in Iraq. A frisson of excitement coursed through the Democratic party at the prospect of again declaring a war lost: Oh, to be young (or even graying and paunchy) was very heaven once again!
Rep. Murtha, a former Marine, was declared by the media the perfect vessel for an antiwar message. Not quite. Blogger Mickey Kaus noticed that within the same interview he said we had to get out of Iraq because there was a raging civil war, and also that it was O.K. to get out of Iraq because a civil war wouldn’t erupt if we left. He told Newsweek that he wouldn’t have publicly denounced the war if the White House had returned his calls. Maybe if he makes the list for the White House Christmas party he’ll call for more American troops in Iraq.
The sight of Murtha denouncing (even incoherently) the war was too much temptation for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.). The House Democrats’ strategy was to let Murtha take the lead with his surrender proposal, and otherwise get out of the way. But Pelosi couldn’t resist blurting out that she agreed with Murtha’s call and so did most House Democrats. As the political damage of that outburst sank in, Democrats–including Pelosi–began to backpedal. She explained that she would lobby her House colleagues to keep them from officially adopting her position and, apparently, their own position.
Elsewhere, in the spirit of the moment, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean declared the war lost–until a furor prompted him to explain what he really meant to say was that we could still win, and that it’s imperative that we do so.
The Democrats can’t help themselves. The party’s attitudes about matters of war and peace were forged during Vietnam, and so defeat is stamped in its DNA. Learning what they consider the lesson from Vietnam–that the war dragged on too long when it was a lost cause–they consider declaring defeat the height of geopolitical wisdom in almost any circumstance.
Perhaps they eventually will be proved right, but the American public would prefer to try to win. This is why Democratic calls for retreat are so politically perilous, and so senseless, when Iraq might be on the cusp of a turning. What a fine irony it would be if after denouncing President Bush for being out of touch with Iraqi reality, Democrats were even more so, right at the moment they began to be true to themselves.