While President Bush struggles with an Iraq intervention that seems increasingly off the rails, Democratic strategists are beginning to reexamine an ancient premise. For years, conventional wisdom held that Democrats benefited when the economy headed south and Republicans ruled when foreign policy was uppermost in voters' minds. Now, however, the Dems are girding for the 2004 drive to oust Bush with growing confidence in their ability to win the debate over national security. Small wonder. While laments over lost jobs remain a staple on the stump, Democratic political pros suspect that the economic landscape may improve substantially by 2004. Iraq, on the other hand, looks like a black hole that could get blacker. "The real issue of 2004 is national security," says Bob Shrum, a top adviser to Presidential candidate John F. Kerry.
One sign that Dems see an opening is the Sept. 17 decision of retired General Wesley K. Clark to jump into the Presidential race with a blast at Bush-style unilateralism. His decision may have been hastened by a flurry of polls showing the President's vulnerability on what was once his signature issue. In fact, a new Gallup Poll finds that public support for intervention in Iraq has dropped from 76% in April to 50% today. "If the opposition party doesn't talk about [this], they're complete idiots," says Democratic consultant James C. Carville.
But with the increasingly bold attacks on Bush machismo comes an additional burden for Democratic hopefuls: more scrutiny of their policy alternatives. Already, Clark has flip-flopped on his support for a preemptive war against Iraq, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean had to back away from suggesting that he might alter Bush's pro-Israel tilt. "It's awfully hard to keep track of where Democrats are," says Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie. He's convinced that an assault on Commander-in-Chief Bush will backfire. Moreover, Bush's challengers have yet to come up with compelling solutions to the Iraq mess and America's tarnished image around the world.
IRAQ WOES. Democrats were split on whether a preemptive war to oust Saddam Hussein was justified. But they all agree on one thing now: The White House has botched the post-war by thumbing its nose at the U.N. -- at least until now -- and failing to do proper occupation planning. The consensus solution: a rapid turnover of power to an indigenous Iraqi Governing Council and with it, an infusion of U.N.-sanctioned peacekeepers and aid money. Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman calls for Iraqi self-rule within 60 days and reconstruction chores to be assumed by a non-American. Dean says a contingent of 50,000 foreign troops could help stabilize Iraq and allow an earlier homecoming for American soldiers.
Democratic calls for "internationalization" of Iraq are appealing, but experts say it isn't as simple as it sounds. For starters, many countries are reluctant to validate a war they view as a breach of international law. Besides, France's dream of a European counterweight to U.S. "hyperpower" means that even with Bush's new entreaties to the U.N., little in the way of troop contingents or aid money will be provided. Similarly, Dems' calls for a heavily Islamic force in Iraq look like a pipe dream. Pakistan, India, and Turkey have resisted pleas for troops.
The harsh reality: While the U.N. can help with relief chores, it will be of limited use in counterinsurgency operations. "From a policy standpoint, it is unrealistic" to expect a huge helping hand from U.S. allies, says Professor Michael Mandelbaum of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
INFINITE INTIFADA. Democrats contend that Bush's initial reluctance to get deeply involved in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian dispute contributed to the unraveling of the peace effort championed by Bill Clinton. Dean would even enlist Clinton as a top-level peace negotiator.
Trouble is, this overlooks the fact that Clinton's exertions ended in failure. And since Dems are reluctant to pressure the Sharon government on contentious issues such as Jewish settlements, it's hard to see how they would do any better than Bush in breaking the bloody status quo.
NO NUKES. According to Dems, the Administration's aversion to direct talks with North Korea and Iran made it harder to rein in their nuclear programs. Lieberman would resume Clinton-era talks with Pyongyang without preconditions. Dean would grant North Korea's demand for a U.S. nonaggression pact.
But while the Democrats assail Bush's North Korea stance, his strategy of using China to pressure Kim Jong Il may be yielding progress -- albeit slowly. In addition, experts note that a yearning for a return to Clintonism overlooks the fact that the North betrayed the U.S. by launching a secret weapons program.
CHINA CARD. Democrats charge that Bush is coddling China for fear of jeopardizing lucrative U.S. business deals. Meantime, critics say, Beijing keeps the yuan artificially low and floods the U.S. with cheap goods. The answer for candidates such as Missouri Representative Dick Gephardt: limit market access until China and other "unfair traders" get in line.
But the Demo-barbs ignore a key point: An evolving China has become useful to the U.S. on issues ranging from North Korea to combating terrorism. And a trade showdown now could harm the global recovery and multinationals' prospects for expansion.
For the moment, the Democrats are too busy firing broadsides to pay much attention to the complexities of the issues they are distilling into sound-bites. But if one of the White House wannabes actually winds up in the Oval Office, one thing is certain: The victor will discover that the real world is a lot more complicated than it looked from New Hampshire. Just ask George W. Bush. He blasted Clinton's nation-building and promised "a humble foreign policy" built on global alliances. Sounds kind of quaint today, doesn't it?
By Richard S. Dunham and Stan Crock
With Lee Walczak in Washington