More than anything, Democrats want to get George W. Bush out of the White House, but the price of a strong campaign against him may be more than the party is willing to pay.
Foreign policy is the problem. The Bush administration's response to Sept. 11, 2001 -- the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq, the doctrine of preemption and the quarrels with "international public opinion" (a.k.a. France and Germany) -- pushes all the hot buttons of Democratic activists. But polling data consistently show that foreign policy is Bush's strong suit. It is virtually the only major policy area in which large majorities of voters consistently think that President Bush is leading the country in the right direction.
The early primaries revealed that Democrats are willing to trade purity on the Iraq war for electability in November. But this may not be enough. Democrats probably need to do to Bush on foreign policy what President Clinton did to Newt Gingrich on domestic issues such as welfare reform and a balanced budget. They are going to have to steal the Republicans' clothes and run as the party best able to protect Americans from our enemies at home and abroad.
Neutralizing Bush's advantage in foreign policy is even more important to Democratic hopes for November than many now realize. The economy is almost certainly going to continue to improve, undermining some Democratic strengths on domestic issues. In a tight election, even a small foreign-policy edge could put Bush back in the White House for four more years.
There's something else to consider. Should Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry or another Democrat become president, he is going to have to stick fairly close to Bush's foreign policy. There can't be a hasty withdrawal from Iraq; nor can there be a slowdown in the war on terror.
Despite skepticism flowing from the huge intelligence failures over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs, any president would have to respond strongly to provocative steps by countries like North Korea or Iran. And the continuing danger of new terrorist attacks in the United States would force any president to take a tough public stand against terrorists.
Like it or not, on most key issues, Republicans in Congress can block Democratic attempts to change foreign-policy direction even in the unlikely event that Democrats take both houses of Congress and the White House.
It takes two-thirds of the Senate to ratify treaties, which means that prospects for U.S. ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty will be as dead under a President Kerry as they are under President Bush. And a President Kerry -- indeed, any U.S. president -- will have to echo Bush's argument in the State of the Union that the United States does not need "a permission slip" from international organizations to act in its own defense. Bill Clinton did not have a permission slip to attack Yugoslavia over Kosovo; Jimmy Carter didn't request one for his failed rescue mission of U.S. hostages in Iran.
No permission slips, no Kyoto, no International Criminal Court equals no real thaw with Old Europe. This shouldn't be surprising. Old Europe's quarrel is with America, not just with Bush. French President Jacques Chirac had so much contempt for Clinton that he said, in 1995, that "the position of the leader of the free world is vacant." French concerns over America's reputed status as a "hyperpower" first surfaced under the Clinton administration as well. Such thoughts will continue to shape many European attitudes toward the United States even if Bush heads back to Crawford, Texas, next year.
As for the Middle East, there also isn't much room for policy change. Politicians sometimes talk about putting pressure on Israel, but this is easier said than done. If the U.S. put enough pressure on Israel, we probably could force some changes, but they would be disappointingly small and the political price high. Historically, Democrats have been more committed to tough pro-Israeli policies than Republicans. It is hard to see much change in that outlook in 2005.
So, closing the "war gap" it will have to be. But ask former Georgia Democratic Sen. Max Cleland how easy that will be. Cleland lost three limbs in the Vietnam War. He lost his Senate seat in 2002 largely because Republicans were able to portray his votes on the Homeland Security bill as "unpatriotic."
Go further back in time. George McGovern was a combat bomber pilot during World War II and was routed in his bid for the White House. Go back even further. In 1864, the career soldier Gen. George B. McClellan ran against Abraham Lincoln, a lifelong civilian except for brief stints in the militia. Lincoln won because voters trusted the Republicans more than the divided Democrats to bring the Civil War to a successful conclusion. The presence of antiwar Democrats in the party and at the convention undercut McClellan's strenuous efforts to portray himself as just as committed as Lincoln to defeating the South.
This problem is likely to dog Democrats in 2004. The nominee may be centrist, but voters know that Democrats have been divided on the war.
If Clinton taught Democrats how to triangulate, another party hero taught them a skill they may need in 2004: outflanking from the right.
The first JFK from Massachusetts ran against Richard Nixon by promising a tougher Cold War strategy. The Republicans, Kennedy charged, were allowing a "missile gap" to open up between the United States and the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Republican strategy of "massive retaliation" didn't give the U.S. the flexibility it needed for guerrilla wars and other low-grade conflicts. Kennedy won. The missile gap turned out to be as elusive as WMD in Iraq, but Kennedy survived.
To win the White House back, it may not be enough for Democrats to go along more or less reluctantly with Bush's war policy. They may need to articulate an even tougher policy against our terrorist enemies and the countries that aid them. For example, Democrats in Congress could introduce a bill to make it harder for immigrants from countries that condone terror to enter the United States. Or one that would make it easier for the families of terror victims to sue, say, European and Middle Eastern banks and other companies that have done business with terrorist organizations. They could announce a strategy for the war on terror that is more comprehensive than anything the Bush administration has offered -- and they could attack the administration for lacking a strategy for victory.
Bush has angered Democrats to the point that the party is willing to unite behind an electable moderate. But are Democrats angry enough to challenge Bush's war strategy as too weak? Until they are, they may not be mad enough to win.
Walter Russell Mead, contributing editor to Opinion, is the Kissinger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the forthcoming book "Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk."