As dangerous as President Bush’s record on Iraq may be to Republican presidential candidates in 2008, Democrats also are risking revival of fears that their party is weak on foreign policy.
If Democratic candidates embrace the strategy of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., to cut off funds for U.S. troops in Iraq, they deserve to be compared to the losers of the past – George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
All lost presidential elections – often by landslides – mainly because voters perceived them as being unreliable in protecting the country from foreign adversaries.
This year, as in the past, the force-averse liberal base of the party is demanding ever-stronger statements and actions in opposition to the Iraq War, and party leaders are obliging, with Murtha, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and presidential candidates either obliging or leading the process.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is being massively pressured to apologize for her 2002 vote authorizing the war, as former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., did. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who opposed the war from the beginning, has set a deadline for withdrawal of U.S. forces, as has Edwards. Clinton hasn’t, but she says she would end the war if it’s still going in 2009.
It’s true that Bush’s misguided and deeply unpopular policies in Iraq probably put an even greater political burden on Republicans.
The leading GOP presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, all feel obligated to defend the war and Bush’s current “surge.”
But they also are trying to distance themselves from the tactics and strategies – largely the work of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – that have led the United States to the brink of disaster in Iraq.
This is not likely to work for the GOP candidates if Bush’s surge policy fails. If the Iraq War ends the way the Vietnam War did in 1975, with a U.S. defeat, the next president is likely to be a Democrat, much as Carter won for the Democrats in 1976.
But it’s worth remembering that Carter pretended to be a hawkish Democrat when running against then-incumbent President Gerald Ford – an Annapolis graduate and former nuclear submariner – and, at that, Ford almost beat him.
Democrats, to their credit, are not repeating all the errors of the Vietnam era. They do not disparage U.S. soldiers – quite the contrary, they claim to favor withdrawal as a means of protecting the troops.
Also, in the main, they profess to understand that the United States is involved in a long-term war on terror and favor a larger military, a better intelligence service and more forces in Afghanistan.
Still, there are reasons to doubt that, when it comes to new challenges, Democrats actually will be strong enough to protect the country and sustain the public’s trust.
The Murtha proposal for de-funding the surge is cleverly drawn as a troop-protection measure, barring funds for deployment of units to Iraq that don’t meet training, equipment or time-at-home standards.
But Republicans already are setting the stage to rightly characterize Murtha’s plan as a denial of reinforcements for troops already in the field. And it’s an attempt by Congress to micromanage a war, telling the commander in chief how to deploy his forces.
Moreover, Murtha announced his plans on an Internet program hosted by www.MoveOn.org, one of the most liberal elements of the Democratic coalition, evidence that the McGovernite wing of the party is now in control of its foreign policy.
Will candidates Clinton, Obama, Edwards and others follow the Murtha line? Indeed, will moderate House Members like Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill.?
They’ll be tempted, for sure, if polls continue to show – as last week’s Fox News poll did – that a majority of voters (54 percent) oppose a funding increase for U.S. operations in Iraq.
But according to the Congressional Research Service, this would represent the first time ever that Congress has voted to cut funding during actual war operations. In the cases of Vietnam and Somalia, cuts were voted after U.S. forces had already returned home, designed to keep them from going back.
Chances are strong that the Murtha ploy won’t really affect Bush’s actions because the surge already is under way and can be paid for out of already appropriated funds.
But will the next step of Iraq doves be stronger measures to deny funds for future operations, perhaps imposing a deadline for U.S. involvement? And will the ‘08 candidates be herded into this posture, too?
There’s a precedent for Democrats heading like lemmings off a left-wing cliff. It was in the 1984 campaign, when Democrats vied with each other to claim first authorship of the “nuclear freeze” idea, which would have left the Soviet Union with a monopoly of intermediate-range missiles pointed at Europe.
The freeze idea was utterly discredited when then-President Ronald Reagan succeeded in winning a Soviet stand-down by getting Germany to agree to deploy U.S. Pershing missiles on its soil.
It’s unfortunately clear that the Democratic Party lacks any candidate representing the foreign-policy toughness of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson. But do its candidates want to follow in the footsteps of Carter and Kerry?
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)
Copyright 2007, Roll Call Newspaper
Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.