On January 29, just after the New Hampshire primary, former president Bill Clinton told Senate Democrats not to be afraid of challenging Bush aggressively. According to one source who attended the meeting, he said that in his view “the Republicans will try to set the agenda and intimidate us and that is why we lost in 2002, and we cannot let that happen again.”
The Democrats are today in a combative mood. In the recent primaries the leading candidates have gone after Bush on domestic issues as if they were all William Jennings Bryan at a July 4 picnic in Nebraska. More important, they have attacked him fiercely on national security grounds. Howard Dean led the way months ago by condemning the invasion of Iraq, breaking the silence the Democrats had held since 9/11. On entering the race in September, Gen. Wesley Clark followed suit and went on to attack the Administration’s “election-driven, poll-driven, ideologically driven foreign policy” on broader grounds. In December John Kerry, previously on the defensive for his vote for the Iraq war resolution, turned his campaign around, and since then he has not only denounced Bush’s “strategy of unilateral and pre-emptive war” but assailed his whole approach to national security. George Bush, he said the night of his victory in Iowa, “has run the most arrogant, inept, reckless and ideological foreign policy in the modern history of our country.”
What a transformation in the course of a year! In the fall of 2002 the Democrats cowered before Bush, believing him the invincible Commander in Chief of the “war on terror.” At a time when they controlled the Senate they failed to hold the in-depth hearings they had promised on Iraq, and many who doubted the invasion would serve the interests of American security nevertheless voted for the war resolution. For lack of any debate on the matter, the majority of the American public supported the invasion, and in the Congressional elections the Republicans beat the Democrats easily, running ads putting those who voted against war in the company of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
In a recent interview Bush made it clear that he intends to run as a “war President” and to win as the defender of American security. His task will be more difficult this year than it was for him in 2000, given the continuing conflict in Iraq and the melting away of his justifications for the war. Nonetheless, Americans have always re-elected their war Presidents (two, Truman and Johnson, chose not to seek re-election), and according to polls most see Bush as successfully prosecuting the war on terror and view the Republicans as stronger on national security than the Democrats. Thus, however important healthcare and the economy are to voters, the Democrats must change this perception in order to win. (Everyone knows this–not least the primary voters who left Dean for a candidate with stronger national security credentials.) The question is how.