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How the Democrats Could Lose

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

By official count, The Post's 10th most e-mailed column of 2007 was published last June under the headline "How the GOP Could Win." It said that the Republican Party would promote national security as the salient issue of the campaign, making a silk purse (victory in November) out of a sow's ear (the quagmire in Iraq), and keep the White House for four more years. Increasingly, I think I might have been right.

It was Mitt Romney, the Harvard MBA, who left John McCain with what could be the winning business plan. In his campaign swan song, Romney used the two words you will hear repeatedly in the fall: retreat and defeat. Referring to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Romney said, "They would retreat, declare defeat, and the consequence of that would be devastating."

In my 2007 column, I compared this presidential campaign to that of 1972, when George McGovern lost 49 states to Richard Nixon. The parallels are in some ways obvious -- the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq, above all. What I could not have foreseen a year ago was how much more obvious the parallels would become. Back in '72, the Democratic Party was split between doves and hawks, reformers and stogie smokers -- even between men and women. The result was a national convention that was boisterous, unruly and ugly to look at. That convention might, however, look like a tea party compared with what could happen in Denver this August.

At the moment, no one can figure out how the Democrats are going to get a nominee. What the party needs is someone like George Mitchell, a senior figure of trusted wisdom who might be able to do what Howard Dean, the party chairman, clearly cannot -- avoid the train wreck everyone can see coming. But barring either Mitchell or a miracle, neither Clinton nor Obama alone can garner enough delegates. It might take a combination of superdelegates and a revote in Michigan and Florida -- punished for holding unauthorized primaries -- to come up with a nominee. By the time that happens, the Democratic Party will be one huge, dysfunctional family.

In that 2007 column, I did not take the surge into account. Putting an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq has indeed made a difference. It has not won the war and it has not enabled American soldiers to come home, but it has dampened the violence there -- notwithstanding the carnage yesterday. Overall, civilian deaths are down. Overall, military deaths are down. To that (limited but important) extent, the surge has worked.

When I mentioned 1972 and Vietnam to an important Clinton adviser, he pointed out that Nixon initially won in 1968 by saying he had a secret plan to end the war. That nonexistent plan was still apparently unfolding four years later. In addition, Nixon made opposition to war seem unpatriotic and defeatist. He exploited the war, exacerbating cultural divisions.

John McCain lacks Nixon's raw talent for hypocrisy, so I don't think he'll go that far. But he will make his stand on the surge, and it will be, for him, the functional equivalent of Nixon's secret plan. His plan, McCain will say, is to win. The Democrats' is to surrender, he will say. The issue, if he frames it right, will not be the wisdom of the war but how to get out with pride.

McCain, of course, owns the surge. He advocated putting additional troops in Iraq way back when President Bush, deep in denial, was proclaiming ultimate faith in Rummy and his merry band of incompetents. McCain, in fact, oozes national security. His weakness is that he has too often advocated using -- or bluffing about using -- force (North Korea, Iran, the former Yugoslavia). With the deft application of just a little demagoguery, he can be made to look like Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the deranged Air Force commander in Stanley Kubrick's always instructional "Dr. Strangelove."

You can see it all happening again: a Republican charging that the Democrats are defeatist, soft on national security and not to be trusted with the White House. And you can see the Democratic Party heading toward Denver for yet another crackup. This time, instead of McGovern, a genuine war hero (the Distinguished Flying Cross) caricatured as a sissy, the party will put up either a candidate who has been inconsistent on the war or one with almost no foreign policy or military experience.

A year ago, it looked like the party could not lose. This year, it seems determined to try.

cohenr@washpost.com


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