Commentary: Dems must find an Iraq strategy or finish second
SAN DIEGO -- Democrats, especially those with presidential ambitions, think they're being so clever. They have devised a line of argument they believe will help them benefit politically from President Bush's troubles in Iraq.
But it turns out they aren't so clever after all. What they've come up with stands a good chance of backfiring and doing Democratic candidates more harm than good. Even though Iraq seems to be a huge liability for the president and the Republicans, it's possible that the war will eventually hurt the Democrats as much as anyone.
That's a shame. The Bush administration has made plenty of mistakes in Iraq -- starting with the fact that it didn't send enough troops, and didn't provide adequate supervision for some of the troops it did send. Remember Abu Ghraib? This country could stand an honest and vigorous debate, about where we go from here.
But this much is certain: If a debate comes, it'll be no thanks to Democrats. The best they could dream up goes something like this: "We were hustled. Sure, we voted to authorize President Bush to use military force to invade Iraq, but we were misled. Not that we regret toppling Saddam Hussein. We only regret that we weren't given all the necessary information to make a more informed decision."
The "we were hustled" approach offers something for everyone. If you support the war, you can applaud Democrats for backing the president. If you oppose the war, you sympathize with them for being conned by what you've probably already decided is a devious bunch.
But Democrats are forgetting one crucial detail, something they should have learned from recent presidential defeats: Americans hate politicians who duck responsibility for their actions by relying on parsed phrasing and other word games.
Democrats lost the last two presidential elections, in part because they sent forth candidates who -- in their eagerness to get as many votes as possible from the left, right and center -- took both sides of every issue, flipped positions, parsed phrases, eschewed straight talk and gave nuance a bad name by taking complicated policy positions that were impossible for most Americans to decipher.
Now Democrats are getting ready to make similar mistakes in their attempts to politicize the Iraq War. The Clintons are setting the tone. While Sen. Hillary Clinton stakes out a "hawkish" pro-war position, former President Bill Clinton bad-mouths the administration's war effort. On the difficult question of whether we should stay the course in Iraq or pull out, Democrats have an answer: "Yes."
By working both sides of the street -- playing to both the anti-war base of the Democratic Party and those swing voters who still feel uneasy about the prospect of an immediate withdrawal -- Democrats run the risk of pleasing no one. They also stand a good chance of coming across as cravenly opportunistic, willing to say anything at anytime completely unencumbered by the inconvenience of a set of core principles.
None of this is likely to help Democrats as they inch toward the 2008 presidential election. At this point, their strategy for retaking the White House is simple: hope that voters are, by then, so discontented with President Bush that they decide they don't want any more Republican administrations for a while and vote Democratic by default.
That's lazy politics. You bank on the opposition party messing up things so badly that you don't have to lift a finger to win. Trouble is, that strategy rarely works.
Clinton won two elections by offering voters a vision of where he wanted to lead the country, not just endless criticism of where the country already was.
When the country is at war, you can't play both sides against the middle. Democrats have a choice to make. They can come up with a new strategy for how to talk about Iraq, or they can get used to coming in second.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.