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Democrats Can't Beat Policy with Politics

By Daniel Henninger

When pundits confronting the modern sport of extreme politics want to step back from it all, a favored tactic is to ask: What would a man from Mars think? The spectacle currently on display for the man from Mars is a full-throttle election-year fight over the meaning of national security. The Democrats want voters to view the November election through the fogged and bloody prism of the war in Iraq; Republicans want voters at 30,000 feet with a war on terror spread to the horizon.

We don't need the proverbial man from Mars to assess the fight between Democrats and Republicans over national security. Over the past year, I've exchanged messages with several American soldiers in Iraq, now a planet in our political system, and I asked one recently for his opinion of the political landscape back home. He sounded like he might prefer Mars.

"We are very cut off from big political debates here," he said. "We have access to email and the Internet, but as a ground combat arms guy, my pace precludes the close following of national political news that I enjoyed prior to deploying, so I can't say that these debates weigh heavily on us." Thank God for that.

It is difficult to imagine that the U.S. soldiers in Iraq would regard the political debate back home as measuring up to the seriousness of what they do every day. How would you like to roll out of your bunk in al Anbar province, Mosul or Baghdad on a Sunday morning and read across the top of the local U.S. paper that everything you've done in Iraq for three years has merely made the terrorism threat worse? You just might lose heart a notch, a dangerous thing when fighting a war.

But at this late stage of the campaign, Iraq-as-failure has become the central narrative in the Democrats' strategy. A memo sent out to Democrats last week by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a strategy group led by former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg, discusses Mr. Bush's "failure in Iraq, which energized Democrats and dispirited Republicans." It urges Democrats: "On Iraq, stress Bush/GOP 'mismanagement' and need for a 'new direction.' "

There is general agreement in Democratic circles that the party made a mistake by not confronting the national-security issue more forcefully in 2002 and 2004. Paul Begala cited the two elections on the "Today" show Monday and said al Qaeda is "coming back to get us because of the failed policies of George Bush."

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner says it has polled each element of this strategy, and that the poll numbers suggest public support for these Democratic positions. A poll-certified national-security strategy just might work with the out-of-sorts 2006 electorate. But there was a reason for 2002 and 2004. Those Democrats who did get elected channeled their energies into denouncing the Bush antiterror programs and backing the Lamont Insurrection. So there's a problem with the current hand-the-war-to-us strategy: Their hearts and minds really aren't in it. They don't want the war.

No one doubts that George Bush's war on terror is based in belief and principle. Yes indeed, many Democrats say this is precisely the problem. But voters are going to have to make a net judgment between these two variations on a theme. What's before them?

On the GOP side, they've seen George Bush give three major policy speeches this month, pushing the Bush Doctrine with commitment and consistency. Today Congress may send for his signature the bill he sought on terrorist detainees.

The Democrats are back in the national-security game alright, but the playbook is opinion polling first, with belief a second option. One result is their national-security offensive has taken on a surreal unseriousness.

A fortnight ago, the big political story suddenly became ABC's made-for-television movie, "The Path to 9/11." Out of the woods to dominate the news cycle came the ghosts from the Clinton past--Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright--condemning the film as a slander on their long years before the antiterror mast. Up to this point, Democratic candidates had seemed to be surfing smoothly toward control of the House on waves of bad media news out of Iraq. Suddenly they've got to deal with a movie suggesting we're in Iraq because their president failed to pull the trigger on Osama bin Laden.

This sideshow culminated last Sunday morning in a bizarre exchange between Bill Clinton and Chris Wallace of Fox--Mr. Clinton wagging a familiar finger at Mr. Wallace and accusing the anchorman of smirking at him. Personally, I think Mr. Wallace generally looks bemused, which is a distant, more innocent cousin of the smirk. Bill O'Reilly, now there's a big-league smirk.

Some pundits surmised that the Clinton eruption was planned to rally the liberal base, depressed at the sight of bad Bush's approval rating crawling back above 40%, and rising. This was Bill Clinton so my guess is it was both--planned and over the top. The fact is, the Democrats found themselves back in Afghanistan with Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, rather than where they wanted the news to be, amid Baghdad's bombs. A messy week.

Then came the leaked NIE story in the New York Times this past Sunday. What a bombshell. This would put them back on message: Iraq as failure. But by now it's evident that the whole workweek invested in the National Intelligence Estimate story was a colossal waste of the time devoted to it. What began Sunday as the Times's towering bonfire--16 intel agencies and 12 anonymous sources writing off Iraq--by Wednesday had burned down to embers.

After the White House released the NIE summary late Tuesday afternoon, reporters reading it for the first time on the Web undoubtedly kept hitting the Page Down button on their PCs. This is it!? Three crummy pages that anyone could have boiled down from a Foreign Affairs "Wither Iraq?" symposium.

The Democrats' problem is this: They are trying to beat policy with politics and weaken belief with polls. This may work for Social Security. I don't think it works with war. Don't be surprised if come November, Democrats are still on message--Iraq as failure--and still in the minority.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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