Despite our apparent collective wisdom, most individuals believe what they believe, to hell with logic and facts. A new poll has found that 36 percent of Americans think it’s “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that federal officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks. About the same percentage—Different people? Who knows?—believe that Saddam “was personally involved in the September 11th attacks.” Which is also the same fraction of Americans who think the expedition in Iraq is currently going “well”—a number that, remarkably, hasn’t really moved during the past two dispiriting years.
On Iraq, minds don’t change easily even among the sane and intellectually nimble. The Times’ Tom Friedman was in favor of the invasion and occupation—until last month, when he finally decided that “we can’t throw more good lives after good lives.” He now wants the U.S. to announce a withdrawal timetable and do its best to assemble an international peace conference and peacekeeping force that includes—lots of luck—Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria; in other words, as a practical matter, he wants to pull out. He has recalculated the costs and benefits, and changed his mind.
Americans whose opinions actually do morph along with the facts, of course, still hold the balance of political power. And they can be distinctly, consistently glimpsed in poll after poll. Today’s pivotal chunk is that 10 percent of the electorate who voted for Bush but now count themselves among those unhappy with him—presumably the same 10 percent who told the NPR pollsters that they “somewhat disapprove” of the president’s performance.
And they are surely the same interesting group, more or less, who’ve changed their minds these past four years about which political party is the more trustworthy guardian of our national security. According to an amazing meta-study of polling data by The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, between 8 and 17 percent of Americans have shifted their default trust from Republicans to Democrats concerning all the strong-daddy issues—terrorism, Iraq, national defense, foreign policy. This is the sensible, disgusted, reality-based cohort that might just rebuke the GOP by evaporating its House majority on November 7.
In the post-9/11 era, neo-McGovernism is not the way that Democrats will return to governing.
A lot can happen between now and then, of course. It’s hurricane season. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong Il might do something nutty and provocative. Just because we’ve made it five years without any successful jihadist attack on American soil doesn’t mean (knock wood) we’ll get to five years and two months. The mere revelation of the transatlantic plane-bombing plot apparently slowed down the anti-Republican political momentum. Osama bin Laden could be captured or killed, although that particular October surprise, I think, would be surprisingly ineffective: When the Reaganites got Hezbollah to release an American hostage in Lebanon just before the 1986 elections, it was a big deal—but the Republicans still lost the Senate.
Let’s assume that control of the House is indeed about to turn over. And let’s also assume that Iraq is a lost cause. The resurgent Democrats will thus be at a crossroads. They can decide that their election victory and the failure in Iraq are a vindication of the party’s peace-at-any-price tendencies, tacitly revel in our military failure, embrace Vietnam syndrome redux. The other path is a tougher one in every sense: It entails complicated and necessarily murky navigations on Iraq like those of senators Clinton and Biden (and, yes, even unlikable Joe Lieberman), and a recognition that the most damnable thing about the war has been the swaggering incompetence of its prosecution.
The party, in other words, can be born again resembling either its sweet, soft, post-Vietnam iteration or its muscular, John Kennedy–esque version. It can build on the national-security cred it’s now acquiring as a result of the Bush administration’s bungling and its highest-profile leaders’ relative hawkishness, or it can scare away the middle-of-the-roaders all over again. If Connecticut’s Ned Lamont becomes the great signal victor of this election, it’ll make people on the left feel good, but those happy days won’t last. We were thrilled about George McGovern’s nomination in 1972, too, and we’ve been paying for that moment of righteous satisfaction ever since. In the post-9/11 era, neo-McGovernism is not the way that Democrats will return to governing.