If you need an explanation for why the Democrats can't score points against President Bush, look no further than a recent interview that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave to the National Journal.

In the interview, Pelosi essentially defends the president's war on Iraq and his national-security policy in general. Though she acknowledges that Democrats have some disagreements with the administration on homeland security, she says, "We don't have to be in disagreement with the president on national security." Asked what she would think if no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq, Pelosi replied, "People have lost their lives. I would not want to leave the impression that because we have not found weapons of mass destruction, it was not a worthy sacrifice. So, I don't place a high premium on it."

Compare those remarks -- there are others she made that I'll get to in a minute -- with an interview Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) recently granted to The Washington Post. The piece may have appeared in the "Style" section, but that didn't stop Byrd from ranting about Iraq:

We just fought a war that didn't need to be fought. . . . There was no real justification for sending those 300,000 men and women to Iraq to fight. Contrary to what Mr. Bush tried to convince this nation of, Saddam Hussein did not constitute an imminent danger to this nation. . . . We've lost 145 men and women killed -- not a great number, but too great a number. We didn't need to lose any of them. And we killed thousands of men and women and children in Iraq! Thousands of 'em! That was needless slaughter.

Pelosi's style couldn't be more different from Byrd's. She is the charming hostess who only speaks well of others and, following official Washington-speak, couches her answers in vague terms. He is the old curmudgeon who doesn't care about offending anyone as long as he gets to make his point.

Of course, Pelosi and Byrd are in different positions: She's charged with leading the House Democrats while he represents only himself (and, of course, his state). There's a generational difference, too: Pelosi is in her first year as minority leader and could possibly run for a higher office someday; Byrd has served in the Senate for more than 40 years, and this is likely the last elected office he'll ever hold. He's also seen (and experienced) enough history to, at least publicly, call a spade a spade.

Further on in the National Journal interview, Pelosi is asked whether the president misled U.S. citizens about Iraq. "I would never characterize the president taking us into war as misleading us," she said, "because it's too serious a decision for him to make. We just have to go beyond this, though other countries will not. But the sacrifice has been made."

And questioned about whether going into Iraq qualified as a preemptive strike by the United States, she said:

I completely disagree with the doctrine of pre-emptive strike. It had no debate in the Congress. In my conversations with the White House, they said this was not a pre-emptive strike. It was the continuation of a long process of [stemming] weapons of mass destruction, of resolutions at the United Nations . . . and this was a consequence of that process.

All of this sounds very polite, but it also sounds like Pelosi has naively swallowed the administration's message hook, line and sinker. I know the war boosted Bush's approval ratings, but how do Democratic Party leaders honestly expect to defeat Bush if they agree with him? Al Gore tried that strategy in the second debate of 2000; it failed miserably.

Pelosi makes clear in the interview that she disagrees with Bush on a number of other issues, such as tax cuts. And while Democrats plan to make domestic issues the centerpiece of the 2004 elections, they simply cannot afford to cede national security to the president. Bush's aides have already told The New York Times that the president's campaign will focus on security and terrorism next year (hence the Republican convention on the eve of September 11). Democrats don't need to give him any additional help.

Again, let's hear from Byrd's Post interview:

What new worlds do they want to conquer now? We went through Iraq like a dose of salts. We were told by this president that Saddam Hussein constituted an imminent threat to our security. Bunk! That man couldn't even get a plane off the ground!

Then, later:

The Bush team's extensive hype of mass destruction in Iraq as a justification for a preemptive invasion has become more than embarrassing. It has raised serious questions about prevarication and the reckless use of power. Were our troops needlessly put at risk? Were countless Iraqi civilians killed and maimed when war was not really necessary? Was the American public deliberately misled? Was the world?

Democrats must not be afraid to challenge Bush on this question, especially now, as the administration considers taking action against Iran. It's sad that the voices of public conviction in the Democratic Party belong for the moment to an older generation. But at least someone is saying what needs to be said.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.