April 1, 2006  

An election in war time

We are only a few moments away from the opening of the 2006 political campaign season. The election could well be a strategically decisive moment. Consider the following:

• President Bush’s approval ratings have, in some polls, plummeted below 30 percent.

• Except for the brief period of bipartisanship in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the president has been an object of revulsion among Democrats.

• The president’s drop in the polls represents the loss of a small group of centrists and, more significantly, an erosion of support among conservatives and Republicans.

• Midterm elections are often points of vulnerability for parties in power; second-term, even more so.

• The strategic “center of gravity” in Iraq and in the “long war” in the region is the durability of the American commitment and will; certainly, this is what the enemy believes.


The Bush administration gives off every indicator of an intellectually and politically spent force. From the contested 2000 election onward, the president has never enjoyed much more than a razor-thin majority of support; the victory of 2004 was only a 51-to-48 margin, hardly a resounding vote of confidence for a commander in chief during wartime.

And what a fall there has been in this second term. From the soaring rhetoric of freedom on the march in Bush’s second inaugural speech, the reality of his leadership and governance has been increasingly disappointing to the American people.

Bush’s greatest strength, his determination in the face of attack and adversity, is being undercut by his greatest weakness, his indiscipline in execution of policy.

In the flush of his victory, the president claimed he would liberally spend the “political capital” he seemed to have won in 2004. But where he won the election as the more worthy leader in time of war, he tried to govern as a great domestic reformer, bravely — indeed, ultimately, too bravely — trying to tackle the issues of entitlement reform. It is not without reason that Social Security is regarded as the “third rail of American politics,” and it delivered a mighty jolt to the president’s popularity.

More crucially, the president spent too much time in this finally futile effort, attempting to deliver his message in a retail fashion around the country, sidestepping Washington-based Democrats in Congress, communicating directly to the American people. The political-opportunity costs, particularly on Iraq policy, proved to be tremendous. In Washington, Sen. Carl Levin, with the respect due a longtime member of the Armed Services Committee, raised a variety of questions about the conduct of the war. Even the thoroughly hashed-through issues of why we went to war, weapons of mass destruction and such were given ninth lives.

By last fall, polls indicated deep uncertainties about the administration’s competence and the president’s wartime leadership. The multiple fiascoes following Hurricane Katrina seemed to reinforce the image. The impression of a gang that can’t shoot straight persists; witness the late-night comedians’ obsession with Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting accident.

The White House’s initial response to this distress was to resort to the tried-and-true vehicle of presidential speeches. Bush has, through the years, given a remarkable series of speeches rallying the nation for war in the Middle East, defining the nature of the enemy and the conflict, and inspiring Americans for sacrifice in pursuit of a high moral purpose. But in late 2005, we’d heard enough of that and wanted some sense that the rest of the government — and not least the Defense Department — had a way to translate the president’s passion into a workable and practical strategy.

What ultimately stemmed the hemorrhaging of popular support was the release of the “Strategy for Victory in Iraq.” It was hardly an elegant statement of war ends and means, but it was broadly accessible — even the mainstream media could understand it — and thus reassuring to the shrinking number of open minds on the subject. But it did no more than get the public opinion toothpaste back in the tube. Thus, in the wake of the bombing of the Samarra shrine and a press primed to see an Iraqi civil war around every street corner, confidence in the commander in chief is again at issue.

As if his own standing weren’t enough of a problem, Bush’s lieutenants and congressional comrades add almost no value to the president’s credibility. The vice president is genuinely loved by hard-core Republicans but loathed by many more; to television, he’s Darth Vader incarnate, and no Cheney story, however brief, can be broadcast without a scowling mug shot of the vice president leering over the newsreader’s shoulder.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remains a controversial and contentious figure, eternally argumentative and combative but seemingly less and less convincing to a public worried about the direction of the war. The recent Quadrennial Defense Review was fatally weak where it should have been strongest: in limning a strategy and plan for the long war, as AFJ argued in last month’s issue. At best, the review was an opportunity that was squandered; more probably, it contributed to the image of an administration doing the right thing in all the wrong ways.

The indictment of the president and his party would be incomplete without considering the role of congressional Republicans; I write this the morning after the good people of Houston gave former House Republican Leader Tom DeLay a new lease on political life. But there is, at least from a strategic standpoint, a larger issue than the problems of corruption that seem inevitably to correlate with having too much power for too long in Washington. The Republican victory of 1994 brought in a new generation of members who did not grasp — and who have signally refused to learn — their responsibilities as international leaders. Elected and re-elected on domestic- and social-policy platforms, they have not risen to the challenges of the post-Sept. 11 world. They remain, in their own minds, eternal backbenchers.

And so the general Republican disarray makes the prospect of a divided — if not wholly Democratic — Congress a real one come the second Wednesday in November. I pretend to no expertise in political prognostication, but even conservative and Republican partisans acknowledge the current odds. And they say they are worried.

Democratic pollsters, by contrast, are almost giddy. Stanley Greenberg, a veteran of the Clinton administration’s highly professional polling operation, reports a 13 percent swing nationally toward Democrats. Even allowing for the effects of increasingly ingrained and scientific gerrymandering, by which incumbents of both parties have entrenched themselves in idiot-proof districts, the Democrats’ prospects for the fall are brighter than they have been in a decade.

But who are the Democrats these days? During their recent wilderness years, have they prepared themselves to be leaders in a time of war?

The answer, I fear, is a resounding “no.” Indeed, many Democrats hold to the notion that we are not at war —that the conflicts in the Middle East are entirely the doing of the Bush administration, and a better approach to the region’s terrorists and autocrats is a combination of law enforcement and quiet diplomacy.

The few Democrats who do believe there is a war, such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman, are pariahs within the party; as noted in the March issue’s Darts & Laurels, Connecticut’s Democratic town councils voted a resolution of censure against their senator.

The faces of the Democratic Party — House Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Leader Harry Reid and, above all, party chairman Howard Dean — make Bush look like a uniter, not a divider. Dean, in particular, seems ill-suited to the demands of a wartime election; expect to see his “we can’t win” statements on Iraq trumpeted repeatedly by Republicans in the fall. In fact, the Democrats’ most vocal war commentary often comes from actor George Clooney and the Hollywood left.

Thus Sen. Hillary Clinton, with an eye on the 2008 presidential campaign, continues to keep her distance from the formal leadership and take, with occasional exceptions, the high road on Iraq matters.

What seems to unite Democrats is their hatred of Bush and a natural desire to reclaim some role of power. Indeed, Democrats’ Bush-hating may well have surpassed the Republicans’ Clinton-hating of the 1990s; having seen that phenomenon at close range, I am saddened to see ugliness matched by ugliness.

Thus Democratic strategy for the 2006 elections seems simply to sit by while the Republicans implode. Whether this is a winning strategy, I cannot say; one of the first rules of politics is, when your opponents are self-destructing, stay out of the way. Democratic partisans and liberal columnists such as The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne contend that, as the party out of power, Democrats have no obligation to offer an alternative program to the Republican position or the policies of the Bush administration. Again, this is a traditional election tactic that undoubtedly has its appeal for the fall.


It is hard not to see this fall’s contest as an election in wartime; whether or not we think we’re at war, our enemies think and act as though they are. Likewise, the 2006 campaign will transmit important messages to our allies, not only about Iraq and the greater Middle East, but also about the role of the United States in the world and its commitment to continued international leadership. All eyes are always trained on the self-proclaimed sole superpower.

It’s also an unprecedented kind of wartime election. We have a second-term, lame-duck commander in chief at the low point of his popularity. The war itself is unique — the long war is indeed already a long war and will be longer than World War II or the Civil War, almost certainly longer than the American Revolution. The war is inconclusive, and will remain so; it will be hard to tell for sure whether we’re winning any time soon, although there is a real and imminent prospect of losing.

A divided government under such circumstances is — I speak descriptively, not prescriptively — a potentially grave strategic weakness. To be sure, it is the deep policy difference that matters much more than any partisan difference, but I cannot see the policy divide being closed soon. The imperatives of election strategy will drive the Democrats to make the divide as wide as possible and to make the argument as heated as can be.

To be frank, the situation puts the Democrats in a delicate position, where party interest and national interest will be difficult to reconcile. The tension, as Leon Panetta, the longtime House leader who served as President Clinton’s chief of staff, puts it, is between a strategy for winning elections and a strategy for governing.

The dilemma will be even sharper should the Democrats reclaim a congressional majority in the fall. No longer simply “outs,” they would be “ins,” although obviously the junior partner to the White House.

Obstructionism has been the default mode of divided governments. It was certainly the mode of congressional Republicans during the Clinton years, at least after Newt Gingrich discovered that leading the government from the legislature wouldn’t work. But an obstructionist approach in wartime — and especially in this war — would be irresponsible, damaging to America and dangerous for the world.

Don’t construe this as an endorsement of the Bush administration or a partisan position for the upcoming elections. Voting in wartime — to the point of changing parties in power — is a measure of the greatness of the United States, and the Republicans have a lot to account for.

This is, however, a plea for the Democrats to adopt the stance of a loyal opposition, to consider their strategy and couch their arguments in the context of the national interest. That would be the measure of a genuinely great political party. The world will be watching.