Friday, May 16, 2008

The Ghosts of Elections Past

After President Bush made his veiled attack on Senator Obama for offering to meet with “terrorists and radicals” yesterday, a firestorm of democratic response has ensued.

Even though Bush’s speech was made in Jerusalem, the Obama campaign decided that a swift and decisive riposte at home was called for. And even Hillary Clinton, who has differentiated herself sharply on this issue from Obama has resisted the opportunity to pile on, perceiving presumably, that Democratic voters will not forgive her for not closing ranks on an issue that could permanently cripple Obama’s fall campaign. This is no mean feat of self-restraint and political temperance. There are some revealed preferences and perceptions going on here.

Even though the Democrats are supposed to be irreconcilably locked in a bitter nomination battle, they all agree that the charge of appeasement and weakness in foreign affairs is their weakest link. It is why the Democrats picked a war veteran in 2004 to head their ticket (and why they are quick to respond today for fear of yet another successful “swiftboating”), why the Democratic congress has been slow to cut off war funding in Iraq, and why Hillary Clinton insisted on running as a war hawk from day one even though she knew that her base strongly desired otherwise. What Bush did in Jerusalem is a big deal to the Democrats, and they have decided that they cannot let it stand lest it becomes the overture and then the leitmotif of the fall campaign.

I wonder if the past is prologue or better left as epilogue. (If experience and history really mattered in politics, we would have seen more veteran politicians enter the White House: Chris Dodd and Joe Biden should have made it longer in the nomination fight; and Hillary shouldn’t be fighting for her political life.) A whopping 62% of Americans now think that going to war in Iraq was a mistake, and this number is only going to rise. At some point, this antsy, tentative, equivocating stance on the part of the Democrats is going to become counter-productive. If they cling on to the lessons of the past, they may never be ready to countenance the challenges of the future. The winds of change are scented with the fear of the ghosts of elections past.

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