On Iraq, the Democrats are the party of defeat. That's not a partisan smear, but a fact.
The further we slide toward defeat, the higher the Democrats' political fortunes rise. To the extent they offer any clear policy alternative for Iraq, it is either — depending on your point of view — to admit, or to guarantee, defeat with a rapid drawdown of American troops. So, their political self-interest objectively coincides with a defeat, and the kind of pullout endorsed at times by high-profile leaders in the party would hasten it.
The Democrats don't offer stirring rhetoric about the need for victory and for stalwartness in the face of setbacks, but instead a dreary recitation of mistakes in the war leavened with little hope or positive policy proposals. They don't talk of the need of maintaining our national will or the need for patience in waging a difficult and irregular war, but emphasize our casualties and the fact that the Iraq War has already dragged on longer than World War II.
Now, it's not that the Bush administration hasn't made mistakes, or that optimists (including myself at times) haven't often been wrong, or that we don't face the possibility of losing. It is perfectly reasonable as a matter of principle for those Democrats who originally opposed the war to want, as they see it, to cut our losses. And it would be scurrilous to accuse Democrats of hoping for defeat. But Democrats demonstrate no appetite for doing anything serious to help resist that calamitous eventuality.
Politically, Iraq is a loser for Republicans, except for the bright spot that the American public is not yet ready to quit. A CNN poll in August found that 69 percent of Americans oppose withdrawing American troops by the end of the year, and 66 percent believe that we can win the war there. This is the point of leverage from which the White House can, and will, attempt to lighten the political weight of the war.
Democrats try to defend themselves from the charge of defeatism in three unpromising ways. First, they hit back hard against any perceived attack. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave a speech warning against "moral confusion" in the war on terror and asking whether violent extremists can be appeased, Democrats reacted with an overly defensive outrage. Whenever someone mentions morally confused appeasers, do their ears burn?
Second, they keep their policy prescriptions vague. Top Democrats John Murtha, Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry — as well as Connecticut Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont — all have endorsed a pullout within months. If Murtha had had his way back in November 2005, when he first advocated a six-month drawdown, U.S. troops would have left in May, and Iraq already would be in the books as a lost war. Subsequently, all of these Democrats have shifted to advocate, along with most of the party, a nonspecific timetable for withdrawal. This is a transparent way station toward advocating a pullout whenever it becomes politically palatable (say, after a Democratic victory in November).
Finally, Democrats balance their pessimistic calls for troop withdrawals in Iraq with resolute advocacy in favor of more troops in Afghanistan. But there is no logical cause to favor the war in Afghanistan over the one in Iraq, given that both involve fighting terrorist insurgencies with a strong ethnic element in wars that will drag on for years and have been getting harder recently.
There is one obvious way for the Democrats to bury charges of defeatism. It would be for the bulk of the party to swing around to an affirmative strategy for victory and for the party's leaders to support it energetically. That, of course, will never happen. If the Democrats sweep in the fall, it will be a sign that the American public has begun to give up entirely on Iraq — and an eventual U.S. loss there will be marked, appropriately, by the ascendance here at home of the party of defeat.