What has happened to the American voters on the Iraq War? In less than a year, they have gone from supporting Bush’s war to opposing it. It seems they have finally gotten around to studying the merits of the issues that we Democrats have been arguing for so long – there were no WMDs; Osama bin Laden was not Saddam Hussein’s personal terrorist on 9/11; Bush’s intelligence data was fabricated. Actually, no. Voters believe Bush has made America weaker, even a loser, whereas they once believed that he was the guy to keep America strong and safe. But they do not consequently believe that Democrats are any better at making us winners once again. So election 2006 could end up being nothing more than an opportunity missed for the Dems.
In Democrats' haste to scream, “I told you so!” to the White House, the press, and the American people, they have missed something. If we are winning the political debate over Iraq, then why hasn't the Democratic Party gotten dramatically more support from the American people than the Republicans are getting? Congressional Democrats have only a single-digit advantage when voters are asked who should run Congress. And voters still give Republicans an advantage on fighting terrorism even though they now believe that the Democrats are better able to solve the Iraq problem.
The American people have supported every war we have fought because at the beginning they have believed that it would keep us safe and strong. Sometimes their initial belief was proven right (the Civil War and World War II) and sometimes they were wrong (Vietnam and Iraq). Recently, voters have also believed that military action maintains our status as the most powerful country in the world. “We’re Number One!” is a pretty powerful principle around which voters rally.
So, until the last year, voters supported Bush because they believed we could WIN and continue to be STRONG, especially after the devastating feeling that we were so vulnerable following the World Trade Center attacks. Now the voters have turned against Bush, but only because they believe we are LOSING the same war that they originally supported, thus making our country WEAKER.
Americans haven't sat down, studied the issues, and suddenly seen the wisdom of the Democrats' arguments about the merits of the anti-war position (eg, needless killing, go-it-alone foreign policy, lies from the White House). Americans are frustrated with Bush because they think we are LOSING and no one likes being a loser. But the Republicans still have the American people believing that the Democrats would make us even weaker than they.
What to do, then? When Democrats talk about the war and Republican failures, they must talk about how it is making our country weaker -- international standing, no money to invest in education & health care & infrastructure & jobs -- not how the war was immoral or the deaths were useless. Let me be clear. This does NOT mean that the Democrats now need to become more pro-war than the White House. Democrats must talk about how they can return the country to a position of strength. We can be more responsible about deploying our military, using the services for defensive actions but also for humanitarian purposes. We can renew our country as the beacon on the hill rather than the bully on the block by rebuilding an internationalist foreign policy based on respect. And we should use our money on investments at home that make our borders and ports safer, our independence from foreign oil greater, and our economy more robust and fair.
Until the American people think the Democrats are the party to make us stronger, we will not win the political advantage that Bush’s troubles in Iraq should have already created. Republicans are already re-positioning themselves for this year's elections, beginning a troop withdrawal by claiming success after recent elections. They will not simply sit back and hope there is an end to the perception that Bush has made the nation weaker and that the nation has lost the Iraq War. That means the Democratic job of taking back the Congress in 2006 will be even harder than it now appears to be. When the Democrats focus on the principle of making America strong again, rather than focusing entirely on Bush's failures, they will gain the political advantage that is now theirs for the taking.