The two major parties have now placed their bets, and a gamble is under way for the highest possible stakes: control of the government, and with it the future of the United States.
The Republican Party was the first to place its bet, and its gamble is clear: It has bet on a successful outcome of the war in Iraq. After Sept. 11, the swift invasion of Afghanistan, and the triumphant toppling of Saddam Hussein in just three weeks in the spring of 2003, that bet looked not only safe but positively brilliant. Since then, however, the war in Iraq has gone from good to bad to downright depressing, with a tenacious minority of insurgents inflicting painful losses on both the American forces and the Iraqi government and people. American fatalities are, in fact, remarkably low, compared to those during Vietnam or Korea, let alone World War II, and are still scarcely two-thirds as great as those we suffered on that single morning in September 2001; but that very fact has enabled the media to highlight every individual death, and public sentiment has hardened against the war, in the absence of any clear sign of victory ahead.
It's a safe guess, therefore, that the White House wishes mightily that it didn't have so many of its chips placed on winning a clear victory in Iraq. But it does, and it still has some powerful assets in the battle: Forces that the insurgents cannot possibly defeat in any military sense; generally high morale among the troops on the ground; and, perhaps above all, a commander in chief who shows no sign whatever of quitting, and who has more than three years of his second term to go.
It was predictable that the Democrats would criticize every aspect of Bush's conduct of the war that they could. But recently a sizeable number of their national leaders and spokesmen have gone further. They have concluded, on the basis of public opinion polls, that a majority of the American people have lost confidence that the war can be won, and want to withdraw.
Many Democrats, accordingly, have begun proclaiming these beliefs as their own. With their allies in the liberal media in full-throated support, they have declared that the war is an unwinnable disaster, and have begun demanding that the United States withdraw from Iraq. Decorate that how you will, it amounts to a simple prescription: Cut and run.
What such a gamble, if forced on the administration, would mean for Iraq, and indeed the whole Middle East, and in the long run for the United States, is brushed aside. Whatever befalls, it can all be blamed, in retrospect, on Bush. There will be time later, in a successor Democratic administration, to sort it all out, retrieve whatever is retrievable, and fashion a new policy. The Democrats are betting that Bush's venture in Iraq will end in total disaster.
Well, somebody is obviously wrong here, and it will be interesting, to put it mildly, to see whom it will be. If Bush loses his bet, he will undoubtedly be regarded as one of the most spectacular failures in American presidential history. Nor will the Republicans be able to escape being associated with his failure.
What has received less attention (in part because the Democratic gamble has only recently become visible as the policy of the party) is the fate that will befall the Democrats if Bush pushes on to victory in Iraq and the Democrats lose their bet.
That is a real possibility. The media can -- and do -- obscure the true situation in Iraq by reporting almost exclusively the daily doses of bad news: the car bombs, the daily or weekly losses of more American lives, and so on. Individual honorable Democrats, like Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), can return from visits to Iraq and insist that genuine progress is being made there, in winning the war and building a viable democratic nation, and such assessments are scarcely reported at all. But the truth (if it is the truth) will make itself felt in the long run, no matter how zealously it is ignored.
The Democrats are setting themselves up as the "cut and run" party. If we win, they will have a lot of explaining to do.