In 1980, Johnny Lee had a crossover hit with “Lookin’ for Love (In All the Wrong Places).” Democrats would do well to remember the first verse,
“I’ve spent a lifetime looking for you…
Playing a fools game, hoping to win
Telling those sweet lies and losing again.”
For many of us, it has been a lifetime since the Dems presented voters with a solid alternative to the Republicans. Heading for 2006, the party of FDR needs to take a clear position on Iraq, to quit “playing a fools game, hoping to win.”
The latest CNN polls carried encouraging news for the party. Fifty-four percent of responders indicated that they would support any congressional candidate that opposes President Bush. The problem, of course, is that it’s not always clear that a particular Democrat opposes Bush, particularly when the subject is Iraq. Because of the Dems ambivalence about the occupation, the electorate remains wary of the party. The public seems to understand what the GOP stands for—strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, small government, and family values—but are confused about the core principles of the Democrats.
In the 2004 presidential election, the electorate didn’t see much difference between the Iraq policy of George Bush and that of John Kerry. In January, Time columnist Joe Klein observed that Kerry didn’t bring up Bush’s authorization of the torture seen at Abu Ghraib, because he was afraid that if he did, the Republicans would paint him as being weak on the war on terrorism.
For similar reasons, Kerry didn’t take advantage of obvious problems with Bush’s war: failure to find WMDs, manipulation of intelligence data before the Congressional authorization, loss of focus on Al Qaeda, to name only a few.
The timidity of the Democrat’s presidential candidate is symptomatic of a deeper problem in the party: the obsession with short-term results. In this sense, the Dems adopted the Republican morality that winning justifies the means. Beginning in the Clinton era, Democratic leaders focused on tactics rather than elaboration of the party’s unifying principles. The “Clintonista” wing of the party continues to exert great influence and, as a result, the Dems lack a distinct morality and a clear strategy.
To form a coherent position on Iraq, Democrats would do well to ponder principles that differentiate them from the GOP. Three come to mind: telling the truth, defending the United States, and restoring national honor.
One of the most obvious problems with the war in Iraq is that its justification relied upon misrepresentations and outright lies by President Bush and his representatives. The administration manufactured a case for the invasion so that Republicans would have a winning issue in the 2002 congressional elections.
While this stands as a particularly egregious example of GOP immorality, it also signals their vulnerability: the electorate no longer trusts them because they are seen as liars—a recent Washington Post poll indicates that Americans feel the level of honesty and ethics in the government has declined under the Bush administration. Therefore, one principle that Democrats can use to differentiate themselves is honesty. They should cease their doubletalk about fighting a smarter war in Iraq, “establishing milestones,” and begin telling the truth: the occupation is a quagmire, a moral black hole. We should withdraw our troops.
The public clings to the perception that Republicans are better on defense. The irony is that the Bush administration has based our homeland security on a devil’s bargain, betting everything on a flawed strategy, “We are fighting these terrorists in Iraq so we don’t have to face them in our own cities.” The Oct. 26 report, “Combating Catastrophic Terror,” repudiates this notion and argues that Bush has systematically weakened America. The report asserts that Democrats actually have the best principles and ideas for defending the homeland, for example, serious preparation for an attack.
Finally, there is the honor of the United States. A few months ago, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told a French reporter that America was “the most hated nation” in the Middle East. As a result of the Bush strategy for the war on terror, the worldwide esteem of the U.S. has been ravished. During the war in Iraq, America has used banned weapons, torture, and death squads; all of these actions have defiled our reputation, sullied our image as the “shining beacon on the hill.” Democrats should take the position that to regain our national honor we must end the bloody occupation, and rethink the war on terror.
It’s hard to represent honor, truth, and real security, until you convince voters that you value integrity, an adherence to a strict code of ethics. The Democratic leadership must represent integrity. This is what attracted voters to the Dean campaign in 2004; Howard may be rough around the edges but he has integrity. Observing a well-defined morality means that Democrats quit being wishy-washy about Iraq and separate themselves from Clinton-era ethics where winning was all that mattered.
Dems must cease, “Playing a fools game, hoping to win, telling those sweet lies and losing again.” To distinguish themselves from Republicans, Democrats have to adopt a set of moral principles, and then apply them to Iraq, and America’s other problems.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at email@example.com.X