Republicans have won seven of the last 10 presidential elections in significant part because a majority of Americans saw them as tougher and more resolute on national security. Congressional Republicans have now resoundingly reaffirmed their party’s national security credentials, this time on the Iraq war, leaving Democrats looking, again, mostly like the party of retreat.
However war weary many Americans are at the moment, don’t bet that painting Democrats into their cut-and-run corner won’t bolster GOP prospects in November for holding on to its congressional majorities.
Even if a majority of Americans currently regard the Iraq war as a mistake, only a distinct minority favor retreating if it leaves Iraq in chaos and the U.S. mission there a failure. Credit the American public with more grit and common sense than many Democrats in Congress.
The first full-scale congressional debates on Iraq war options since 2003 framed those choices precisely: Persevere and win, or concede defeat and leave. Republicans left no doubt that they favor winning. Democrats left no doubt that they cannot agree on a coherent strategy and that many Democrats favor getting out, even if that dooms the mission for which 2,500 American soldiers and Marines have given their lives.
The House of Representatives voted 256-153 Friday for a resolution that rejects setting an arbitrary deadline for withdrawing American troops from Iraq before the U.S. mission there is successfully completed. Nearly all Republicans voted for the resolution. Most Democrats, roughly three of every four, voted against it.
A day earlier, the Republican-led Senate crushed Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s latest flip-flop on Iraq, a resolution calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2006. The vote, angrily denounced by Democrats as a parliamentary gimmick, was 93 to 6. Democrats vowed to force another Senate vote this week on U.S. withdrawal, presumably on a less abrupt timetable than that set by the now unabashedly dovish John Kerry.
It won’t matter. Congressional Republicans have served notice, emphatically, that they favor victory over retreat and defeat in Iraq.
Speaking for Republicans, House Majority Leader Rep. John Boehner declared, "Retreat is not an option in Iraq. Achieving victory is our only option – we have no choice but to confront these terrorists, win the war on terror and spread freedom and democracy around the world."
Speaking for Democrats, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, "Stay the course? I don’t think so, Mr. President. It’s time to face the facts. The war in Iraq has been a mistake, I say a grotesque mistake."
Thus, the partisan divide is largely cast. A Democratic Party in disarray is prepared to throw in the towel in Iraq, quibbling only over the terms and timing of withdrawal. A united Republican Party supports staying in Iraq until the job is done.
For Democrats, this is a perilous course. It revives the defining cause for a generation of electoral defeats.
Perceptive Democrats see as much and argue ardently for a return to the "fighting liberalism" of such Democratic icons as Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy.
Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic magazine, has written a book titled "The Good Fight," making the case for muscular liberalism in American foreign policy. The subtitle of Beinart’s book reveals his thesis: "Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again."
Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, think tank of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, has edited a volume of foreign policy doctrine titled "With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty."
Beinart and Marshall are visionary thinkers offering their party a way out of the political wilderness. But how many Democrats are listening? Not Nancy Pelosi, not John Kerry, not Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean (who has long since declared the Iraq war irretrievably lost), and not most Democrats in the House of Representatives. And not many in the Democratic Party’s increasingly liberal – or should we say, leftist? – activist base.
Kerry was cheered last week by the MoveOn.org types at a Washington conference called "Take Back America" when he recanted his original support for the Iraq war and called for prompt withdrawal. Sen. Hillary Clinton was booed by the same audience when she declared that setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq was not in America’s national interests.
For Democrats, the timing of all this is both unfortunate and highly revealing. Just when the news from Iraq turns decidedly good – al-Zarqawi dead, al-Qaeda on the run, a tough new Iraqi government in place and a security offensive in Baghdad making notable progress – the Democrats want to declare the war lost and get out.
That won’t be lost on the voters in November.