TWO BIG DATES are coming up in the presidential campaign: The Iowa caucuses will take place on January 19. The New Hampshire primary follows on January 27. But the key date in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination may well turn out to have been October 10, 2002. On that day, Senators Joseph Lieberman, John Edwards, and John Kerry joined most of their Democratic colleagues, and a large majority of the Senate, to vote to authorize President Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein. That same day, Dick Gephardt joined a substantial minority of his caucus, and a substantial majority of the House, in support of the president. Howard Dean spent the next year attacking his rivals--the "Washington Democrats"--for signing on to Bush's war. The rest is history.
Dean could, of course, still lose the nomination. But he's in an awfully strong position. He leads in the polls, in money, in organization, and in proven ability to generate enthusiastic and committed supporters. He is opposed by a fragmented field. Still, he could falter, and if he did, Wesley Clark would seem to have the best chance to overtake him. Clark might surge to second (or even first) in New Hampshire, and then could have the resources to compete with Dean in February and March. Clark, too, is an outsider who vehemently (most of the time) opposes the war. In either case, it seems almost certain that the Democratic nominee will be comprehensively anti-Bush: anti-Bush on domestic policy, of course, but also anti-Bush on foreign policy.
So we will have a choice, not an echo. This is perhaps as it should be. In polls, a majority of the Democratic party is anti-Iraq war, anti-Bush Doctrine, and anti-Bush's overall conception of the war on terror. Most of the country, on the other hand, basically supports Bush's foreign policy. That's why the president now runs ahead of his Democratic opponents, and why he must be favored in this election. But if the country is split about 60-40 on the most fundamental choice facing it, and if the bulk of one party is strongly opposed to the policy being promulgated by a president of the other party, the opposition presumably deserves a chance in the presidential election to take its argument to the country. They're going to get it.
And they may persuade some more people. Who knows how the world will look 10 months from now? Who knows what unforeseeable contingencies, capricious events, unpreventable setbacks, or errors in execution by the Bush administration might combine to give greater credence to critics of the Bush foreign policy? In any event, even if things do go reasonably well, it would be a mistake--perhaps a fatal mistake--for the Bush administration, or its supporters, to assume victory in 2004 will be easy.
Visions of 1972 and 1984 dance enticingly in Republican heads. But we'll be engaged in Iraq in 2004, as opposed to having extracted ourselves from Vietnam, supposedly with honor, as in 1972. And despite all that was admirable about Reagan's foreign policy, one reason it could appear to be "morning in America" in 1984 was that we had (ignominiously and damagingly) pulled out of Lebanon in 1983.
It is to Bush's credit that he has committed to staying in Iraq until the job is done, and that he is committed to pursuing the war on terror comprehensively and unsparingly. In doing so, he has ruled out the easier path to victory taken by his predecessors in 1972 and 1984. It won't be "peace with honor," or morning in America, in 2004; it will be war on terror with honor, and something more like high noon in America. This puts a far greater burden on Bush to explain and justify his policies. But it also means his victory--if he achieves it--will be of greater significance, and more richly deserved.
Winston Churchill's admonition, "Deserve Victory," has always been a good guide to behavior. Churchill's father's slogan, "Trust the People," hasn't been bad advice either. But even if some in the Bush administration were tempted to fake victory, or to try to pull the wool over the eyes of the people, it wouldn't work. The most practical political advice for President Bush in this election year is to do the right thing, and let the electoral chips fall where they may.