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'Strong and Wrong vs. Weak and Right'

By Peter Brown

On the surface, the political winner of the dispute between President Bush and Democratic leaders over his plan to beef up U.S. troop-strength in Iraq would seem obvious.

With Bush setting new lows in his job performance every time a new poll comes out, many see Democrats, and their eventual 2008 presidential nominee, as the big winner.

But Bill Clinton's post-2002 election analysis about Americans' penchant for strong leaders, and what that has meant historically, should give Democrats some pause.

All polls show most Americans think the United States is going down the wrong track in Iraq and want a smaller, not larger, military role there.

And, without getting into the wisdom of the Bush policy, or challenging the sincerity of Democratic leaders' belief that it is the wrong one, the Democrats clearly see political benefits to their dissent.

Of course, the obvious very often turns out to be correct.

Yet, Democrats marshaling opposition to Bush's plan might do well to consider the words of the former president, who is their smartest political strategist.

After the 2002 election, Clinton had an explanation for those who did not understand why Bush and the Republicans had picked up congressional seats. The GOP victories that year, in which national security was a big issue, were the exception to the historical record of the president's party usually losing seats in mid-term elections.

"When people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who's weak and right," Clinton said.

Simply put, Clinton was suggesting that just because voters think a Republican president has messed up this war, doesn't necessarily mean that they will vote for the other party to make sure that it doesn't happen again.

That is because the number one criterion Americans have in picking a president is that he (and it is not coincidental that until now it has been a he) be a "strong" leader.

Clinton's wife is the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. It is also not coincidental that until recently, Sen. Hillary Clinton had been less critical of the Bush policy than many of her Democratic colleagues in an effort to strengthen her national security bona fides.

But given the building pressure within her party, and the need to avoid alienating the activists who hold great sway in the nomination process, she too has been stepping up her criticism of the Bush policy.

Now, certainly the definition of a "strong leader" is in the eye of the beholder. But, history indicates the American people believe that description applies to someone willing to use force to protect U.S. interests.

Fairly or not, since Vietnam voters have judged most Democratic presidential candidates as lacking in that quality. Clinton was the prime exception, but he won in 1992, when national security was on the back burner -- certainly not the case in 2008, given the war on terror.

This perception of Democrats followed that party's role in opposing the Vietnam War, which like the current situation in Iraq, became very unpopular with the public. Yet, for decades Democrats have seen their role in ending the Vietnam War as their shining moment.

The challenge for their presidential candidate in 2008 is how to placate a fervently anti-war party base without re-enforcing questions in the minds of the general public about Democrats and defense.

Complicating the matter politically is that Bush will not be on the ballot in 2008. Americans can't directly cast a vote on his policies by voting against him. They must pick a new leader who will guide future decisions.

Of course Republican hopefuls will be dogged by the Iraq issue, especially Sen. John McCain, who has been a strong proponent of sending more troops to Iraq.

But in 2008 the key question for voters, if Bill Clinton is correct, will not be where a candidate was on Iraq, but how their record, including views on that war, fits with the voters' perception of who will be a strong leader.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at peter.brown@quinnipiac.edu

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