On November 7, after twelve years out of power, the Democratic Party recaptured control of Congress and lit a candle of hope, promising serious opposition to George W. Bush’s ruinous presidency. A month later, the Baker-Hamilton group issued a plan for exiting Iraq that, though a waffling disappointment, offered Bush a helping hand out of his quagmire. Stubbornly in character, the President remains oblivious to both, even as American deaths in Iraq climb above 3,000. Instead of experiencing hope, we are once again witnessing a familiar stalemate between the bloody reality in Iraq and Bush’s resistance to the truth about his failed warmaking.

According to news reports, the great debate in Crawford, Texas, over Bush’s “new” strategy is pathetically narrow–evidently confined to how hard the United States should punch back at the chaos and killing in Baghdad. A small “surge” in troops or a big one? A short “surge” or a long one? US forces have tried similar tactics for three years without success. The disgusting import is that more Americans and many more Iraqis will die because Bush refuses to accept what the rest of the world understands: There is no “victory” ahead for America, only deepening shame.

The Democrats’ first days in power, therefore, are framed by two basic questions. How aggressively do they intend to use their new legislative powers to push Bush to end this bloody, costly mistake? And will they cast aside their obsession with balanced budgets in order to launch substantial public investments that can fulfill America’s promise? The two questions are connected by the matter of money. The United States can’t afford to conduct war and serious domestic economic reconstruction at the same time. Democrats, likewise, cannot adhere to hair-shirt Clinton-era economics, cutting away at programs and evading society’s deterioration while pretending to have a significant new governing agenda. It is not yet clear how the Democratic leadership will answer these questions. Some early signs are disturbing.

One came when Bush casually allowed that US Army troop strength should be permanently expanded by 40,000 to 90,000–not more troops for Iraq but more troops to fight the next war. Many Democrats nodded approvingly. So did the New York Times and the Washington Post. Forget the facts. Nobody in elite political circles wants to sound “soft” on defense. In other words, Iraq is a disaster, but let’s give the Pentagon another $80 billion to beef up for the next one. Whatever they tell themselves in Washington, this isn’t “smart politics.” Military invasions and occupations are weak and counterproductive responses to international terrorism. We need better intelligence and a foreign policy that emphasizes cooperation with our allies.

The Democrats are perhaps stepping into another Rovian trap–blithely agreeing to a larger military force without considering that this could stymie any serious agenda for new spending on healthcare, education, renewable energy or industrial redevelopment. The Democrats have already handcuffed themselves by committing us to pay-as-you-go budgeting to eliminate federal deficits. If the Democrats shrink the federal budget, they may just be blamed for making things worse.

Democrats must throw off the fiscal handcuffs–fast–and develop a concrete, smart program for investing in what the public wants and needs. That would give them a stronger identity, contrasting Democrats with slash-and-burn Republicans. As Bill Moyers writes in this issue, “We are at an extraordinary moment. The conservative movement stands intellectually and morally bankrupt while Democrats talk about a ‘new direction’ without convincing us they know the difference between a weather vane and a compass.” It’s time to find that compass and define a new foreign and domestic agenda.