Leadership, Please

George W. Bush's cynicism and incompetence have come back to haunt him, earlier than might have been predicted. As a result, history has dealt Democrats an opportunity. Whether they will rise to the occasion remains to be seen.

Michael Tomasky addresses the politics of the New Orleans catastrophe elsewhere in this issue. Although Hurricane Katrina has knocked the Iraq debacle off the front pages, American public opinion continues to desert President Bush on the war. Recent polls show that Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq by 60 percent to 36 percent. And a majority believes that we are losing ground there, and that the war was a mistake. The president's general approval ratings are at a rock-bottom 38 percent, about the hardcore Republican voting base.

But if the Democrats are not careful, leading Republican critics of the Bush Iraq policy will end up outflanking Democrats as war critics. Among senior Democrats, only Russ Feingold has had the nerve to call for a phased withdrawal. Other senior Democrats, such as Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, have staked out a position that criticizes Bush but makes incremental suggestions of how to fight Bush's war more efficiently. Some of these would even lead to commitments of more troops, not fewer.

But leadership requires setting out real alternatives. In the meantime, Republican Senators Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar are becoming more outspoken on Iraq than many Democrats, reflecting growing opposition to the war among Republican officials and voters. Remember that it was Bush, as a candidate, who pleased his base by warning against “nation building,” and that Colin Powell, his first secretary of state, enunciated the Powell doctrine (while serving Bush I) -- namely that the United States should avoid getting entangled in wars that it couldn't decisively win. Traditional Republicans, mostly, are not a recklessly adventuristic group.

Senator John McCain has also led on trying to change the administration's incredible prisoner-of-war policy so that the official U.S. position no longer officially embraces “cruel, degrading, and inhumane” treatment of detainees being interrogated. This policy was devised by then–White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, whom the far right is disparaging as too moderate for the Supreme Court. McCain, in an amendment co-sponsored by Hagel and fellow Republican Lindsey Graham, would subject all interrogations to the rules of the U.S. Army field manual, which specifically prohibits inhumane treatment.

Future historians will debate how a few neocons managed to hijack Bush's foreign policy. But there was, and is, a large wing of the Republican Party that resists neocon grandiosity, and nothing fails like failure.

The late Allard Lowenstein spoke at Columbia University in 1967 on Vietnam. When a questioner noted that no mainstream politician supported withdrawal, Lowenstein quoted the famous line of the 19th-century French politician Alexandre-Auguste Ledru-Rollin: “There go my people! I must find out where they are going so I can lead them!” If public opinion came around, a leader would emerge. And with Lowenstein's coaxing, Eugene McCarthy soon did emerge, reinforcing public dissent and triggering events that led to Lyndon Johnson standing down.

Today, ordinary public opinion is leading elite opinion. If the Iraq War is still dragging on two years from now with Bush and the neocons discredited, either party could emerge as the peace party in 2008. Ordinarily, peace candidates get trounced, but 2008 could reveal a very different public psychology.

* * *

Democrats' mettle will also be tested by the second Supreme Court vacancy. Democrats may be fortunate that Bush chose to elevate John Roberts to fill the seat of the late chief justice. Roberts, by most accounts, is no worse than William Rehnquist. As we go to press, it appears that he will be confirmed handily, barring unforeseen revelations. But a battle royal should be waged to fill the swing seat of Sandra Day O'Connor.

With Bush weakened by both Katrina and Iraq, Democrats have every reason to set the bar higher. The country is narrowly divided politically. In any normal time, this would produce a centrist president, but Bush has grabbed the levers of power and is determined to move America far to the right of its people. Only on the Supreme Court will Bush's legacy last decades beyond the three remaining years of his own fading star.

In a time of terrorism, Americans want leaders. Democrats would do well to filibuster any appointee who is not a true moderate. They would win support for having convictions. And they just might force Bush to appoint a moderate.

Robert Kuttner is coeditor of The American Prospect.

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