JONAH GOLDBERG

Maybe a Democrat should win

The idea gains some traction in conservative circles, but it's still a chilling thought.

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THERE IS AN IDEA out there. Perhaps not a fully formed one. Perhaps more like the whisper of one gusting like a sudden draft through the rafters of the conservative house, causing some to look toward the attic and ask fearfully, "What was that?"

This wisp of a notion is simply this: Maybe a Democrat should win in 2008.

Personally, I don't believe in this poltergeist, at least not yet. But every now and then, I must confess, I do shiver from its touch.

The idea goes something like this: If you believe that the war on terror is real — really real — then you think it is inevitable that more and bloodier conflicts with radical Islam are on the way, regardless of who is in the White House. If the clash of civilizations is afoot, then the issues separating Democrats and Republicans are as pressing as whether the captain of the Titanic is going to have fish or chicken for dinner. There's a showdown coming. Period. Full stop. My task isn't to convince you that this view is correct (though I basically believe it is), but merely that it is honestly and firmly held by many on the right and by a comparative handful on the left.

And that's the problem: Only a handful of people on the left — and far too few liberals — see radical Islamists as a bigger threat than George W. Bush. Which is why if you really think that we are in an existential conflict with a deadly enemy, there's a good case for the Democrats to take the reins. Not because Democrats are better, wiser or more responsible about foreign policy. That's a case for Democrats to make about themselves and certainly not one many on the right believe. No, the argument, felt in places we don't talk about at cocktail parties, is that the Democrats have been such irresponsible backseat drivers that they have to be forced to take the wheel to grasp how treacherous the road ahead is.

The current spectacle in Congress has made it clear that the Democrats don't believe that the war in Iraq is America's war. They think it's Bush's vanity project turned albatross, but they won't take responsibility for their convictions. They fawned on Gen. David Petraeus like schoolgirls, confirming him as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq almost instantly, but they denounce the escalation he helped design and is tasked with implementing. And on the floor of the House this week, they bared their teeth to Bush while bragging about how their resolution is toothless.

It was always a bit of a myth that partisanship ended at the water's edge. But Democrats have debunked, exposed and parodied that myth. Of course, they claim that the president started it by running foreign policy as a partisan enterprise. Fine, there's obviously some truth there. But when the likes of Sens. Hillary Clinton and Jay Rockefeller whine that they were misled into war, they're declaring that they never took their responsibilities seriously in the first place. Indeed, as Christopher Hitchens recently illustrated in Slate, Clinton wasn't tricked by Bush; she supported the war because of what she deduced on her own, both as a senator and as presidential trainee in Bill Clinton's White House when it bombed Iraq and adopted regime change as U.S. policy.

Pro-war Democrats (Sen. Joe Lieberman and a few others excluded) simply hopped on the bandwagon, figuring it would be a political free ride. When it went south, they hopped off and claimed that the driver lied to them. Of course, many Democrats sincerely believe that the war on terror is real and that Iraq is a dangerous distraction from it. But that's not the issue. Terror hawks think you can't both believe the war on terror is real and argue for handing Iraq over to the enemy — even if we shouldn't have gone in in the first place.

If the war on terror really isn't that big a deal, hurray. Then Democrats can't do that much damage, and we can all argue about the minimum wage and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's plane. If it is a big deal, Democrats need to be slapped out of their anti-Bush hysteria by real life. Australian Prime Minister John Howard — a Churchillian figure to hawks — said this week that Al Qaeda is "praying" for a Democratic victory in 2008. It may be. But what happens when a President Clinton or Obama has a 9/11 — or worse — on her or his watch? Or is faced by the prospect of an Iraq run by terrorists? I'd like to hope that president would rise to the occasion, out of conviction or political self-interest.

For hawks who believe that the Bush White House either hasn't been hawkish enough or has done a much better job than the conventional wisdom holds (remember, no terrorist attacks on our soil since 9/11), counting on Democrats to learn on the job is a chilling thought. Which is why it remains a whisper, for now.


jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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