The Washington Times

In order for Democrats to have a decent chance of knocking off George W. Bush in 2004, they are going to need two things: an underperforming economy and a candidate who is credible on the national security issues that will continue even past a war on Iraq.

The economy is obviously unpredictable. The requirement of a strong stance on national security, however, is entirely clear now.

The question is not really whether things go smoothly for Mr. Bush in Iraq and beyond or whether he runs into trouble. The question is how he handles the trouble he runs into. Which is to say, Americans will be looking ahead and not backward. [In support of this proposition, note that the public has shown little interest in punishing the intelligence failures leading up to September 11.]

Since the sensibility Mr. Bush will bring to future adversity will almost certainly be to press harder, and since that’s the agenda around which American opinion has coalesced, Democrats will need a candidate credibly hawkish on the future of the struggle. [As for those who think Democrats’ political prospects will best be served by a dovish opposition to widening conflict, Republicans will be happy to have that argument.]

The elections from 1992 through 2000 were once thought to represent a new era in American politics, one in which foreign affairs and national security mean little, as voters focus on domestic matters. With the end of the Cold War, there was, of course, much truth here. But even this impression is partly misleading. Bill Clinton understood this in 1992, when he conspicuously took time off from campaigning to preside [as it were] over an execution in Arkansas. The point is that if Republicans have the ongoing electoral challenge of proving that they are sensitive to real people’s concerns, Democrats face the challenge of proving they are tough enough.

This is not just a matter of voting “yes” on a resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein. Lots of Democrats will do exactly that, but nevertheless leave the impression that all in all, they would have preferred not to. The question is how to anchor the vote in conviction. It was not enough for the execution to proceed; Mr. Clinton had to go home for it.

Who among plausible Democratic candidates understands this best? In this respect, I think Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has lost stature. His eventual stance is not in doubt, but his handling of the issue has been inelegant. He has been two steps behind the political motion of Washington.

Joe Lieberman has long been out front as the most hawkish Democrat. His has been a well-thought-out, principled stand. But there has been a new high-level entry into the fray: Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. In the course of the past two weeks, he has managed not only to articulate a suitably tough-minded position on Iraq; he has also demonstrated a canny political intelligence about how to approach the issue in a fashion that offers maximum advantage [or perhaps minimum disadvantage] to an opposition party caught in the position of following the lead of the president.

While Mr. Daschle mused about voting later and about an administration that was advancing its case but had not quite yet completely, totally made it, Mr. Edwards immediately understood the rapid change in momentum and sought to capitalize on it. Writing in The Washington Post Sept. 19, he said: “Drafting an appropriate resolution that a large majority of Congress could support should not be difficult. The outlines of such a resolution are already clear. In fact, the biggest debate right now is over the politics of ‘timing.’

“There’s no better way to remove politics from the process than to go straight to a debate over substance. Quick, bipartisan congressional action will ensure that politics plays no part in this debate. It will also strengthen America’s hand as we pursue support from the Security Council and seek to enlist the cooperation of our allies.”

Now here was an admirable piece of political jujitsu, worthy of the way Mr. Bush turned sentiment in favor of United Nations action to his advantage by calling on the United Nations to act. The best way for Democrats to get back to their beloved pre-election list of domestic priorities is not to try to delay a vote on Iraq but to act at once.

In the fall of 1990, George H.W. Bush suffered erosion in support for his handling of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Doves tried to represent this as gathering opposition to a war to oust Saddam. In retrospect, it was mostly attributable to public frustration with how long it was taking to move against Saddam given the administration’s stated commitment.

This is the best Democrats can hope for in relation to Iraq in 2002. And for 2004, they are going to have to come to terms with the reality that opposition to George W. Bush has to be no less hawkish then he is.