RALEIGH – Could former Sen. John Edwards fall short in his expected 2008 presidential bid because he is too conservative?
That’s essentially the premise of this Associated Press story about how voting in 2002 for the resolution authorizing force in Iraq might affect Democratic candidates such as Edwards, John Kerry, Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton. This is a good example, I think, of a reckless extrapolation. The reporter in question and her sources are assuming that the primary electorate in 2007 and early 2008 will think the same way about Iraq that the activist core of the Democratic Party thinks about it today.
It is true that many Democratic partisans passionately, desperately, furiously oppose the war in Iraq. Most of them did from the start. Most Republicans supported the war from the start and still do, albeit with some qualms about how it’s been waged. Swing voters are truly swinging on this issue – they believed that the war was justified at the outset but have come to doubt the initial justifications as well as whether American might can prevail in the end.
Events over the next two years can either solidify the center’s skepticism or flip it back to enthusiastic support. That’s what simplistic accounts of the public opinion on Iraq are missing. Analysts, harkening back to Vietnam, are assuming that the war has become unpopular as swing voters have come to share the shrill views of the anti-war protestors. But, again as in Vietnam, this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding. Americans aren’t pacifists. They don’t have an inordinate fear of casualties or believe that their government is a cabal of oil-hungry conspirators or bloodthirsty “neo-cons” (surely a term that has lost all rational meaning at this point).
Americans support their troops and understand the need to project military force to protect their lives, property, freedoms, and interests. But they want to win. They came to oppose the intervention in Vietnam because they did not see any way to prevail without excessive cost in lives and wealth. The weakening support for the Iraq campaign is based on a similar sentiment: swing voters may believe it is a noble cause, but they haven’t heard a compelling case about its tangible benefits or a credible explanation of how America will win the conflict.
I’m not saying that there is no case to be made or strategy for victory. I still believe both are evident, and occasionally I see administration officials – though more often outside military experts and political commentators – articulating these arguments effectively. The general public is not hearing them, not nearly enough.
Events may outpace rhetorical shortcomings, however. If the passage of the Iraqi constitution and subsequent parliamentary elections help to advance the causes of decency, democracy, and liberalism (in the Lockean sense) in Iraq and the broader Middle East, subverting the power of states that continue to sponsor terrorism and sapping Muslim support for Islamo-fascism, then the U.S. public-opinion polls will reflect rising optimism and pride.
Democratic activists may be many things, but they are not fools. If these events occur – and they certainly may, though there are no guarantees – my guess is that they will want a standard-bearer in 2008 who can claim hawkish credentials. Edwards and the others, odd as it may sound, would suffice.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.