Friday, August 11, 2006

The Trend Is Your Friend

At this point, there's no doubting that the Iraq War is an issue that helps Democrats and hurts Republicans in the 2006 elections. You can see it in the polling on which party people trust to do better on the war -- the last year's polls show people consistently picking the Democrats. September 2004 was the last time a majority of Americans thought the war was worth fighting. Probably the neatest piece of polling comes from New Jersey -- when you mention Iraq, the Democratic candidate's advantage goes from one point to eight points!

Things have, in their slow and steady way, changed a lot between 2003 and now. It's reasonable to extrapolate these trends forward to 2008, because the mechanism that drives them will most likely remain intact. Iraq is deteriorating and Americans are slowly becoming aware of that. I'm pretty confident that in two years, whether it was right to go to war in Iraq will be a more divisive issue within the Republican Party than among Democrats. Already Michael Steele has been talking down the Iraq War under a bizarre veil of faux-anonymity.

I like how Mark Schmitt said it:

But consider that at the time of the 2004 primaries, the war was less than one year old! By the time of the first primary votes in 2008, it will be almost five years of war. We’re now in the fourth year of the war; does anyone seriously think that by the sixth, absent some enormous change, that “antiwar activists” won’t be the vast majority of people?

There's more to be said about the passage of time. By the time of the 2008 general election, 9/11 will be more than twice as distant as it was in 2004. The defining foreign policy experience of the past years won't be the stark terror of planes crashing into the World Trade Center, it'll be the slow horror of watching events fall out of our control in Iraq and the Middle East. We won't be looking so much for somebody who can lead us into a glorious head-to-head conflict with the terrorists, but for somebody who can salvage a respectable conclusion out of the bloody mess that 8 years of Bush has left us in. Under these conditions, it's really important that Democrats focus on fighting the next battle and not the last one. The politics of national security in 2008 are going to be substantially different from 2004.

This doesn't mean that we should run to some kind of pacifist foreign policy. But we should recognize that what Americans need to be promised in foreign policy isn't corpses -- it's victory. The key to finding a pro-withdrawal message that Americans will approve of is fitting it within a larger strategy that comes with a credible promise of victory. The model for a Democratic position that I'd recommend to anyone was set out in Wesley Clark's 2004 article, Broken Engagement. America will overcome its foes in the Middle East the same way we overcame Communism -- not by invading other countries, but through a policy of containment and engagement that remakes the Arab world in our own image over a period of several decades. We did it, we won, and we should do it again.

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