President Bush's soaring statements about America's purpose in the world have led his friends to compare him to Winston Churchill. Democrats like that analogy just fine. Churchill, they note, won a war and then lost reelection in 1945 after a campaign about domestic issues.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) said the popularity of the Churchill metaphor among Democrats these days is "a form of wishful thinking." But the analogy raises an intriguing question about not only the next election but also the next several months of American political life: How will the war in the gulf affect the U.S. debate about domestic policy?
That question is especially urgent for Democrats, who are eager to turn the national debate back to domestic issues as soon as possible. With polls showing a significant gap between approval of Bush's handling of foreign policy (76 percent in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll) and of economic policy (45 percent), the Democrats have good reason to want to change the subject.
But for now the war with Iraq dominates the news and the popular imagination. So rather than fight the inevitable, Democratic legislators and strategists are trying mightily to link their domestic agenda to the war.
The first result of this sort of thinking may be an effort by some Democrats to pass a civil rights bill early in this session of Congress, while U.S. troops are still engaged in battle. Bush vetoed the civil rights bill last year, arguing that it implicitly endorsed racial quotas. But since blacks comprise such a large proportion of the U.S. troops in the gulf, Democrats reason that another veto would be deeply embarrassing.
"No defenders of America in the Persian Gulf," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said in a recent speech, "should face racial prejudice, sex discrimination or any other form of bias when they come home to find a job."
Democrats also are emphasizing the broader theme implicit in Kennedy's remarks -- "What kind of America will the troops come home to?" This approach was a centerpiece of Sen. Mitchell's reply to Bush's State of the Union message last week, and Mitchell said in an interview that the theme has resonance because it goes beyond partisan politics.
"It is and ultimately will be clear to all Americans that the basis of military strength in our society, as in all societies in history, is economic strength," he said. "There is a persuasive case to be made about rebuilding our own economy."
Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic poll-taker, said the link between the U.S. economy and the opportunities returning troops will enjoy has the advantage of identifying Democrats with patriotism and support for the men and women in battle while also emphasizing "the need to get the economy moving again."
In the meantime, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the House majority leader, has been using the issues raised by the war to press two of his favorite themes: tax fairness and the need to have wealthy U.S. allies pay more toward their own defense. An aide to the House Democratic leadership said the Persian Gulf crisis brought both of these questions into sharp relief. "In the new world order," the aide said, "the rich should pay their fair share of taxes, and rich countries should pay their fair share of a war that will accrue largely to their benefit."
Finally, many Democrats are arguing that Bush's bold foreign policy vision is demonstrating just how narrow his domestic agenda really is. "The president has a contradiction he has to resolve," said Robert Borosage, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, "that the American government has the capacity to impose order and our values on an unruly world, but has no ability to address our own real disorders here at home.
"You can't say you can have stability in the gulf," Borosage added, "but that a child can't walk down the streets without being under fire in our cities."
At least some Democrats think that while the war is on it will be hard to get people to think much about health insurance, unemployment, taxes or poverty. "Until the newness has worn off the Persian Gulf War, which has jammed up the TV screens as well as the newspapers, it's going to be hard," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.).
The very notion of carrying out the politics of domestic policy in the middle of a war may have an unpatriotic ring for many Americans. But winning issues at home while the troops fight overseas is well within the tradition of the United States and other democracies.
John Morton Blum, a historian at Yale University and the author of a book about domestic politics during World War II, noted that Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress used the World War II period to roll back a broad range of New Deal programs. Franklin D. Roosevelt acknowledged his need to acquiesce to some of these moves when he declared that "Dr. New Deal" had to give way to "Dr. Win-the-War."
And Britain was politically and socially transformed by World War II as the shared sacrifice of the struggle against Hitler translated into broad popular support for more egalitarian social and economic policies. Ironically, Churchill presided over the very transformation that led to his defeat by the Labor Party's Clement Atlee in 1945.
Republicans and not a few Democrats are skeptical of overdrawing analogies between postwar Britain and the post-Persian Gulf United States. "Britain was a fundamentally altered society in 1945 from the society that existed when Churchill became prime minister," said John Buckley, a Republican strategist. "It's a very long reach to think that the U.S. is going to be transformed to that extent by the war with Iraq."
Moreover, many Republicans argue that Democrats are trying to shift the focus to domestic concerns largely because they opposed a war policy that, so far, has proven to be popular. Mitchell, for one, emphatically denies this, noting that while he now favors a quick allied victory, he still thinks the majority of Democrats were right in asking that sanctions against Iraq be given more time to work.