Democrats in Denial

Students outdoors at Baghdad University this week.
Students outdoors at Baghdad University this week. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)
By Michael Gerson
Friday, January 4, 2008

If 2006 was a year of denial for the Bush administration -- demonstrating that patience in pursuit of a failing military strategy is not a virtue -- 2007 was a period of awakening. Like Abraham Lincoln before him, the president discovered the cathartic pleasure of replacing generals. In Petraeus, Bush found his Grant. He also found that war, like politics, is the art of adjustment.

As the political blitzkrieg of 2008 begins in earnest, it is the Democrats who, on a number of key issues, are living in a state of denial.

In Iraq, coalition casualties are down significantly, along with Iraqi civilian casualties, roadside bombings and suicide attacks. Large sections of Baghdad have been pacified, and the military rolls toward Mosul. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is in reeling retreat. And, most impressive, we have seen the first example of a large-scale Sunni Arab uprising against Islamic extremism. By one estimate, 30,000 former insurgents and tribal leaders are now fighting the enemy in Iraq, adding their surge to our own.

This progress is reversible, especially while Moqtada al-Sadr's militias maintain the capability to mount their own mini-Tet Offensive. But Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy has succeeded with disorienting speed. Its combination of vision and competence will fill chapters in military textbooks.

In spite of these gains, Democratic presidential candidates still insist on reckless timetables for withdrawal -- the surest way to rescue defeat from the jaws of victory. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- who declared that the surge had "failed" even before it was fully implemented -- now contends that "the surge hasn't accomplished its goals."

Bush was hurt by his late and grudging acknowledgment of military failure. Democrats deserve to be hurt by their late and grudging acknowledgment of military success.

Democratic rhetoric on education is also an assault on reality. Attacking No Child Left Behind is a reliable campaign applause line -- Hillary Clinton promises to "end" the law, because it is "just not working." Actually, the imposition of educational standards and testing has improved math and reading scores and begun narrowing the gap between disadvantaged and affluent students.

There is an angry backlash against NCLB among some Democratic interest groups. Suburban districts resent being labeled as failures just because some minority and disabled children aren't making progress. But that is the whole purpose of the law -- to prevent districts from hiding the poor performance of minorities behind the success of other students. Such districts should feel less resentment and more shame.

Teachers unions object to standardized tests, preferring more subjective, nonacademic measures of school success. And that, from one perspective, is understandable. Failing corporations do not like accurate financial disclosures. Slow runners resent those pesky stopwatches. The unions want underperforming schools and ineffective teachers to be shielded from objective scrutiny. But testing is the only way to determine when disadvantaged students are being betrayed -- and by whom.

Democratic candidates attack the Bush tax cuts as a fiscal disaster -- just as a growing economy has boosted tax revenue to its highest level in history, halving the federal deficit in three years.

In 2008, Democrats are convinced that their time has come. But elections are not won by appealing to the clock. Political vacuums are filled by ideas. And Democrats in denial require some adjustments of their own.

Instead of criticizing an increasingly successful Iraq strategy, it would be helpful to hear some realistic proposals to improve American prospects in Afghanistan, where violence has reached its highest level in four years. NATO's military efforts in that country are uncoordinated, even incoherent -- demonstrating the risks of multilateralism. The resolve of some European nations is wavering. An al-Qaeda ministate is developing across the Pakistan border. How would a Democratic response differ from the current one?

Instead of attacking a successful education reform, it would be helpful to hear some practical ideas for improving teacher quality. In the real world of failing schools, the main problem is not too much accountability; it is too few effective instructors. Why should teacher pay be determined by collective bargaining instead of teacher competence, especially in low-income schools that need to reward and retain good teachers? Why not give districts more flexibility to fire teachers who would serve children better by changing professions?

Taking a distasteful dose of reality is one of the most difficult things in politics. Clearly it was hard for the president on Iraq -- but it was good for the country. And it would be good for America if Democrats opened wide for a dose of their own.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company