Political Digest

“What do we do now?”

That was Robert Redford’s closing line in the 1972 classic The Candidate. It’s especially appropriate now that the election is over and our victor–unknown to Doublethink at the time we went to press–is hurriedly preparing his agenda for the next four years. He is mapping out the issues he wants to focus on, and is devising the solutions he thinks he’ll pursue to address them.

It’s worth remembering how futile an exercise this usually is. More often than not, presidents can’t impose their will on events. Overwhelmingly, events impose themselves on presidents.

Presidential campaigns are often next to useless as indicators of what an incoming president will prioritize in office. The simple reason is that the world changes dramatically during the course of a presidential term. In the 2000 campaign, the top issue was how to exploit the growing mountain of budget surpluses. Terrorism was scarcely mentioned. Yet, during the course of George W. Bush’s presidency, the issue surged to the top of the nation’s agenda. And those record budget surpluses morphed into record budget deficits, which everyone proceeded to ignore.

Nor was the 2000 campaign unique. Nearly every modern presidential campaign has focused on issues that seemed irrelevant shortly thereafter. The Iranian hostage crisis propelled Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, but was resolved on his first day in office. George H.W. Bush made prison furloughs a more salient issue than foreign relations in the public mind. Then we barely heard about them. Bill Clinton rode a wave of frustration about the U.S. economy to victory in 1992. Shortly afterward, it became evident than America was in fact experiencing a great economic boom.

This year will prove no exception. Clearly, the war in Iraq dominated the 2004 presidential campaign. This was inevitable: Iraq is the most controversial foreign policy event since Vietnam. George W. Bush knowingly risked his presidency on Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the Democrats deliberately selected John Kerry as their nominee because they believed his Vietnam service gave him instant credibility to confront Bush on Iraq. And yet neither Bush’s talking points nor Kerry’s accurately reflected the attitudes and aspirations of the American people concerning Iraq.

Bush passionately defended his record on Iraq, while Kerry critiqued the incumbent’s rush to war and his handling of the occupation. And yet there was little disagreement about America’s obligation to stay in Iraq–at least for now–and build a sustainable democracy. Both candidates insisted that it was more important to get the job done than to bring the troops home. Bush argued that setting a date for withdrawal was a dangerous idea. Kerry was determined to appear as steadfast as the president. “We have to succeed,” he insisted. “We can’t leave a failed Iraq.”

This level of determination is out of sync with the American public. In retrospect, it is almost amusing that Bush and Kerry felt compelled to reassure voters that they will keep their sons and daughters in a far-off, dangerous place with no set date for their return. The only place where this would be considered good politics is Bizarro World, the planet from Superman comic books where everything is the opposite.

Back on Earth, the American people are actually disillusioned with Iraq, and are quite eager to leave it. The only thing holding them back from demanding full withdrawal is that they’re still groping for an excuse to flee Iraq that maintains America’s security and self-respect.

The situation in Iraq may or may not be improving, but there is nothing uncertain about U.S. public opinion on Iraq. At the end of 2004, the American mood is a combination of defiance toward Iraqi insurgents and terrorists and distress about the slow pace of progress and mounting casualties.

Americans still believe that toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime was the right thing to do (55 percent, according to Newsweek). But the war against Saddam Hussein ended twenty months ago. What troubles Americans is the ensuing occupation. Almost two years into the occupation, only 38 percent believe that “the U.S. is making good progress in Iraq;” 58 percent say “the U.S. has gotten bogged down.” By an eighteen-point margin, Americans believe we are “creating more terrorists in Iraq” than “eliminating terrorists” (CBS News poll). According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 31 percent believe we will “be able to establish and maintain a stable, democratic government” in Iraq.

And yet, despite the thickening pessimism, only a minority of Americans want to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq (39 percent, according to Gallup). A clear majority (56 percent) want to keep the troop level unchanged, or even increase the number of troops. If this seems like a contradiction, that’s because it is. And it is a contradiction that will not survive the next administration. If Americans think we are “bogged down,” doing more harm than good, with little prospect of ultimate success, they will not want to see their sons and daughters dying for a lost cause. They will wake up. They will want to withdraw.

The turning point could come quickly. After the Iraqi elections scheduled for January 2005, it will be increasingly difficult to justify American casualties in Iraq with no end in sight. And there will be casualties, because every month U.S. troops remain in Iraq, popular resistance and violence escalates.

Steven Kull, a public opinion expert at the University of Maryland, says the American public is willing to absorb casualties in wartime, but only if they continue to believe in the worthiness of the mission. “The critical question in the American public’s mind is not whether there are body bags,” Kull says, “but whether the military operation makes sense to them and whether they think it’s succeeding.”

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Iraq no longer passes that threshold, at least in the mind of the average American. I say that not as a critic of the war (I am not), but as an observer of public opinion. Many Americans fear that the situation in Iraq has morphed from a war of self-defense into a twenty-first century version of the “white man’s burden.” For many politicians that is an acceptable transition either because our cause is noble, or because it is superior to the alternative of withdrawal. But that is completely unacceptable to the American people. We hate foreign occupations, and largely wish to leave others alone except when directly attacked.

For all of these reasons, Americans will slowly begin to prioritize “bringing the troops home” over “finishing the job.” Republicans, in particular, will feel less inhibited in critiquing the Iraqi occupation, now that they are liberated from the primal need to protect a Republican president fighting for reelection. It was the Republican party, after all, that proved instinctively allergic to nation-building, as George W. Bush amply demonstrated in 2000. Expect that allergy to return.

The only event that can reverse this trend is rapid and sustained progress in Iraq — the kind of progress that, needless to say, has been missing this calendar year. Assuming that does not happen, the American peoples’ preference for withdrawal will become a demand. It will be up to the next president to navigate a strategy that extricates America from Iraq while preserving our credibility and prestige. That will be an extremely difficult mission.

The 2004 campaign centered on which candidate is more likely to produce victory in Iraq. But it is far more likely that the next president’s mission will be to prevent defeat.

Todd J. Weiner works at Luntz Research Companies, a communications firm in Alexandria, Virginia.

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