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BACKSEAT DRIVING: How A Protracted Struggle Helps Bush

By Mike Murphy

The Fog of War What does war with Saddam mean for the Democratic Presidential race?
First, the rattle of politics has come to an appropriate halt while all Americans rally behind our forces. The Democratic candidates will await hints of the outcome, careful not to step in front of a far bigger force than any of their campaigns. Eventually, politics will resurface and the route the war has taken will sculpt the terrain the rest of the campaign will be fought on.

Scenario one ; in my view the most likely. Iraq's army crumbles almost at once and Saddam is found hanging from a tree along the Tigris, Mussolini-style. The country exults our troops and the President basks in complete victory. The whole ordeal will seem in hindsight more like an enormous and effective police raid than an actual war. The hot anti-war sun that so dramatically shone upon Howard Dean's campaign will quickly set, much to the glee of Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman, and Gephardt; the hang-dog party regulars tired of being hooted at by anti-war Democrats while Dean dives for the cheap applause.

Politically, the President will look invincible, although the dangerous gravity of a slowing economy will loom ominously in the horizon. The Big Four non-Dean Democrats will try to blur the war as an issue. They'll ignore their wiggling of the last two months and trumpet their pro-war support to claim equal toughness with Bush, while trying to shove the national debate back to the more promising ground of domestic policy and the economy. The canny Dr. Dean will quickly pivot to a new message about healthcare, which will prove a surprisingly effective second act.

Scenario two . We prevail, but in an actual war with all expectations of a snap victory unmet. Saddam, alive and fighting, turns brutal artillery on the suburbs of Baghdad, creating a fortress of rubble. We rule the desert, the sky and the lesser cities, but ousting the Dictator from his capital city is slow and difficult. The media, without much perspective to historical costs of war, hype the difficulties day after day. Turkish versus Kurdish trouble flares in the north. Score settling easily beats out Democratic nation building as the preferred activity of post-war Iraqis. "What is the exit strategy?" becomes a hectoring catch phrase in the media while record levels of Gallic posturing are endured.

Our slow, troublesome victory fuels anti-war passion and anger in the Democratic grassroots. Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman and Gephardt continue to squirm on the defensive. Dean builds support in Iowa and New Hampshire. Bob Graham joins the anti-war parade, competing with Dean. Alarmed but resolute, most Americans rally behind the President, but inside the Democratic primary the anti-war movement has all the energy. The war ends in eight weeks, but the strong echo of war politics rings loudly for the rest of the year to benefit of Dean and surprisingly, Graham, while Gephardt, Edwards and Lieberman are completely stuck in pro-war muck. Kerry tries to muscle the contest with money and organization.

Ironically but perhaps not surprisingly, the eventual outcome could be exactly the opposite of current conventional wisdom. A short and successful war may switch the Democratic primary agenda back to domestic issues, weakening Dean's insurgency and opening an easier path for Gephardt, Kerry, Edwards or Lieberman. A purely domestic election next year, after the halo of a brave and successful Iraqi policy has quickly worn off, should be very worrisome to the White House. Conversely, a more difficult war could radicalize the Democratic primary into nominating Howard Dean, who would lead the Chirac/McGovern wing of the Democratic party to a slaughter in November. Americans support their incumbent Presidents more, not less, in times of war and foreign crisis. The liberal romantics of the Democrat primary remember well the passion of the anti-Vietnam war movement, but they forget the crushing Nixon landside.





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