Saturday, June 24, 2006

Financial Times Editorial - Divided Democrats

Financial Times Editorial - Divided Democrats
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: June 24 2006 03:00 | Last updated: June 24 2006 03:00

Pity the candidate whose task is to unite the Democrats at the next presidential election. This week the party's continued indecisiveness over Iraq was on agonising display with Democrat senators splitting three ways. One group, led by Joe Lieberman, voted with the Republicans to "stay the course" in Iraq. Another, led by John Kerry, voted to "cut and run" - albeit by July 2007. And a third, which included Hillary Clinton, voted to maintain US troops in Iraq for the time being - well sort of, depending on circumstances, caveat emptor, etc. It was hardly a stirring performance.

To be fair to the Democrats, the picture in Iraq remains complex. Any simple outcome, particularly one peddled by an undivided Republican party, should be taken with a large pinch of salt. If you add in a sprinkling of Karl Rove - George W. Bush's electoral maestro, recently liberated from the threat of prosecution over war-related leaks - then the brew starts to look unappetising for America's loyal opposition.

The Democrats need to overcome two perennial challenges if they are to take control of Capitol Hill in November and the White House in 2008. First, they should stop trying to atone for previous blunders - it only leads to new ones. In calling this week for a US withdrawal from Iraq, many Democrats tried to make up for the fact that half of them were stampeded into voting for the Iraq war resolution in 2002 - an earlier Rovian masterstroke when mid-term elections were also looming. Likewise, the Democrats' rash support for the 2002 Iraq resolution was driven by regret at having overwhelmingly opposed a 1990 resolution authorising Bush senior to liberate Kuwait. That mistake, in turn, was motivated by Democratic contrition at having taken the US into the disastrous war in Vietnam by endorsing Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964.

Approached dispassionately, history is always instructive. But fighting the last battle is a recipe for permanent defeat. This week was not the time for Democrats to hold a revote on the 2002 Iraq resolution. It was a strategy that addressed neither the existing conflict in Iraq, which requires leadership and realism from America, nor the Democrats' own political difficulties.

Their second challenge is to go into battle under one commander-in-chief. Admittedly the US constitution makes it hard for the party not occupying the White House to unite under one leader, especially if it is in the minority on Capitol Hill. But it can be done - as the Republicans showed under Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s. Deciding who that will be is another matter. In the meantime Mr Rove will continue to torment a divided opposition. Opinion polls still lean towards a Republican defeat in November. But there is plenty of time for Democrats to squander their opportunity. Indeed, history suggests it is more likely than not.


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