Iraq and the Cardboard Democrats

Memo To: Gary Hart
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Leadership Vacuum.

As you know, Gary, I did publicly announce my vote for Sen. John Kerry in last year’s presidential election, even though I had earlier in the year characterized him as a "cardboard candidate." Now and then, when he wasn’t programmed by his campaign consultants (mainly Bob Shrum), Kerry was not bad. Too often, though, I thought of him as a fellow who gathered his team around him every morning and asked them, "What do I think today?" I truly wasn’t unhappy to see him lose, because I never did trust him to get it right in the Oval Office. For President Bush to win narrowly was the best outcome, I reckoned, as he might make a mid-course correction in foreign policy and turn away from the Neo-Con Cabal that led him, and the nation, into this new Vietnam-like quagmire.

So I was delighted to read your Wednesday op-ed in the Washington Post, "Who Will Say ‘No More’?", challenging your fellow Democrats to put aside their pollsters and focus groups and consultants and take on the war directly. My guess is that President Bush is still being snookered by the neo-cons who occupy key posts in the Vice President’s office and Pentagon, and in G.O.P. intellectual circles. As long as no serious Democrat is out there making enough noise that the President has to ask, "What’s this all about?," he will go on kidding himself into thinking he’s on the right track. He still thinks he is promoting "democracy" when all he is promoting is more carnage. Once he announced last week that he thinks we have to "honor" the fallen dead by sending more young American men and women to their deaths, I concluded he has come to the end of the string of feeble justifications for the war.

Now Mr. Bush needs Republican leaders to come forward, singly or in groups, to tell him his public support is ebbing away and he must wrap things up in Iraq. But those GOP leaders are just as chicken as the Democrats, fearful of being accused of "cutting and running." No, as you argue in your op-ed, it is the Loyal Opposition that has to take the lead. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat, last week took the first step in calling for a hard timeline for withdrawal of all U.S. forces. But we all know it is Hillary Clinton who has to get out front – yet she seems already to have asked the pollsters, consultants and focus groups – and decided we must "stay the course." We can’t expect any better from Sen. Joe Biden, ranking Democrat on Senate Foreign Relations, because he, too, is a victim of his own complicity in getting the nation into the war. Both Hillary and Joe are disserving the nation by urging the President to be more resolute in prosecuting the war – when they know full well, cynically well, that he cannot do that. They are cardboard politicians.

You know I have long admired your political instincts, and most certainly have never seen you as a "cardboard candidate" when you were either seeking the Democratic presidential nomination or making noises like you might enter the fray. Along with California’s Jerry Brown, you have been one of the few high-profile Democrats to take seriously the supply-side economics I’ve espoused and which elevated Ronald Reagan to his eight spectacular years in the White House. This is another way of saying that you should take on the role you have outlined in your op-ed for some unnamed Democrat. Throw your hat in the ring for 2008 without giving it another thought, or taking a poll. Go on the Sunday talk shows, write more op-eds, and make the case for an exit from Iraq, and see where it leads. As long as you don’t try to get yourself to the White House, but to stop the useless deaths of our fellow Americans, you can make the difference it will take to achieve that end. If, by happenstance, it also leads you to the presidency, that would be okay with me. But the primary goal is what you have described so elequently in the op-ed that follows. Stick to it.

Who Will Say ‘No More’?

By Gary Hart
Wednesday, August 24, 2005; A15

"Waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool said to push on," warned an anti-Vietnam war song those many years ago. The McGovern presidential campaign, in those days, which I know something about, is widely viewed as a cause for the decline of the Democratic Party, a gateway through which a new conservative era entered.

Like the cat that jumped on a hot stove and thereafter wouldn’t jump on any stove, hot or cold, today’s Democratic leaders didn’t want to make that mistake again. Many supported the Iraq war resolution and – as the Big Muddy is rising yet again – now find themselves tongue-tied or trying to trump a war president by calling for deployment of more troops. Thus does good money follow bad and bad politics get even worse.

History will deal with George W. Bush and the neoconservatives who misled a mighty nation into a flawed war that is draining the finest military in the world, diverting Guard and reserve forces that should be on the front line of homeland defense, shredding international alliances that prevailed in two world wars and the Cold War, accumulating staggering deficits, misdirecting revenue from education to rebuilding Iraqi buildings we’ve blown up, and weakening America’s national security.

But what will history say about an opposition party that stands silent while all this goes on? My generation of Democrats jumped on the hot stove of Vietnam and now, with its members in positions of responsibility, it is afraid of jumping on any political stove. In their leaders, the American people look for strength, determination and self-confidence, but they also look for courage, wisdom, judgment and, in times of moral crisis, the willingness to say: "I was wrong."

To stay silent during such a crisis, and particularly to harbor the thought that the administration’s misfortune is the Democrats’ fortune, is cowardly. In 2008 I want a leader who is willing now to say: "I made a mistake, and for my mistake I am going to Iraq and accompanying the next planeload of flag-draped coffins back to Dover Air Force Base. And I am going to ask forgiveness for my mistake from every parent who will talk to me."

Further, this leader should say: "I am now going to give a series of speeches across the country documenting how the administration did not tell the American people the truth, why this war is making our country more vulnerable and less secure, how we can drive a wedge between Iraqi insurgents and outside jihadists and leave Iraq for the Iraqis to govern, how we can repair the damage done to our military, what we and our allies can do to dry up the jihadists’ swamp, and what dramatic steps we must take to become energy-secure and prevent Gulf Wars III, IV and so on."

At stake is not just the leadership of the Democratic Party and the nation but our nation’s honor, our nobility and our principles. Franklin D. Roosevelt established a national community based on social justice. Harry Truman created international networks that repaired the damage of World War II and defeated communism. John F. Kennedy recaptured the ideal of the republic and the sense of civic duty. To expect to enter this pantheon, the next Democratic leader must now undertake all three tasks.

But this cannot be done while the water is rising in the Big Muddy of the Middle East. No Democrat, especially one now silent, should expect election by default. The public trust must be earned, and speaking clearly, candidly and forcefully now about the mess in Iraq is the place to begin.

The real defeatists today are not those protesting the war. The real defeatists are those in power and their silent supporters in the opposition party who are reduced to repeating "Stay the course" even when the course, whatever it now is, is light years away from the one originally undertaken. The truth is we’re way off course. We’ve stumbled into a hornet’s nest. We’ve weakened ourselves at home and in the world. We are less secure today than before this war began.

Who now has the courage to say this?

The writer is a former Democratic senator from Colorado.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company