Many Democrats seem to think the best policy on Iraq for the November elections is to say as little as possible. They worry that Republicans will brand them “unpatriotic” if they are too critical of Bush’s policies in Iraq — if they dare, that is, to use Iraq to “nationalize” the election. However, failing to do so could be an even more costly mistake for Democrats.
James Carville and Stan Greenberg make just this point in an important strategy memo released Wednesday. Drawing on new survey data, they say “voters are prepared for an upheaval and change of party control, if the challengers define this election, run as outsiders and show voters where they would take the country.” What Democrats need to do, Carville and Greenberg argue, is turn this election into a referendum on the Republican party and its overall agenda — that is, nationalize the election around George Bush. Iraq is one of the two most powerful cards Democrats have to play (the economy is the other).
Many voters are ready for a change. If Democrats hope to capitalize on the unrest, they need to give these voters reason to vote Republicans out office. It turns out that Democrats who run hard against Bush and the Republican’s national agenda do better than those who run only against the particular weaknesses and errors of the Republican incumbent. All politics may be local, as Tip O’Neill once quipped, but as the Republicans showed in 1994, sometimes you win locally by defining the election nationally.
Al-Zarqawi’s death may cause some Democrats to hesitate. It shouldn’t. There has been too much lying and too many broken promises. The public is now ready for some straight talk on how to get our troops out of Iraq. Indeed, as Carville and Greenberg point out, vagueness on the war will be an electoral liability. In November, clarity on Iraq is likely to be equated with leadership.
Peter Trubowitz is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Defining the National Interest: Conflict and Change in American Foreign Policy.