"Waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool said to push on," warned an anti-Vietnam
war song those many years ago. The McGovern presidential campaign, in those days,
which I know something about, is widely viewed as a cause for the decline of the
Democratic Party, a gateway through which a new conservative era entered.
the cat that jumped on a hot stove and thereafter wouldn't jump on any stove,
hot or cold, today's Democratic leaders didn't want to make that mistake again.
Many supported the Iraq war resolution and -- as the Big Muddy is rising yet again
-- now find themselves tongue-tied or trying to trump a war president by calling
for deployment of more troops. Thus does good money follow bad and bad politics
get even worse.
History will deal with George W. Bush and the neoconservatives
who misled a mighty nation into a flawed war that is draining the finest military
in the world, diverting Guard and reserve forces that should be on the front line
of homeland defense, shredding international alliances that prevailed in two world
wars and the Cold War, accumulating staggering deficits, misdirecting revenue
from education to rebuilding Iraqi buildings we've blown up, and weakening America's
But what will history say about an opposition party that
stands silent while all this goes on? My generation of Democrats jumped on the
hot stove of Vietnam and now, with its members in positions of responsibility,
it is afraid of jumping on any political stove. In their leaders, the American
people look for strength, determination and self-confidence, but they also look
for courage, wisdom, judgment and, in times of moral crisis, the willingness to
say: "I was wrong."
To stay silent during such a crisis, and particularly to
harbor the thought that the administration's misfortune is the Democrats' fortune,
is cowardly. In 2008 I want a leader who is willing now to say: "I made a mistake,
and for my mistake I am going to Iraq and accompanying the next planeload of flag-draped
coffins back to Dover Air Force Base. And I am going to ask forgiveness for my
mistake from every parent who will talk to me."
Further, this leader should
say: "I am now going to give a series of speeches across the country documenting
how the administration did not tell the American people the truth, why this war
is making our country more vulnerable and less secure, how we can drive a wedge
between Iraqi insurgents and outside jihadists and leave Iraq for the Iraqis to
govern, how we can repair the damage done to our military, what we and our allies
can do to dry up the jihadists' swamp, and what dramatic steps we must take to
become energy-secure and prevent Gulf Wars III, IV and so on."
At stake is
not just the leadership of the Democratic Party and the nation but our nation's
honor, our nobility and our principles. Franklin D. Roosevelt established a national
community based on social justice. Harry Truman created international networks
that repaired the damage of World War II and defeated communism. John F. Kennedy
recaptured the ideal of the republic and the sense of civic duty. To expect to
enter this pantheon, the next Democratic leader must now undertake all three tasks.
But this cannot be done while the water is rising in the Big Muddy of the Middle
East. No Democrat, especially one now silent, should expect election by default.
The public trust must be earned, and speaking clearly, candidly and forcefully
now about the mess in Iraq is the place to begin.
The real defeatists today
are not those protesting the war. The real defeatists are those in power and their
silent supporters in the opposition party who are reduced to repeating "Stay the
course" even when the course, whatever it now is, is light years away from the
one originally undertaken. The truth is we're way off course. We've stumbled into
a hornet's nest. We've weakened ourselves at home and in the world. We are less
secure today than before this war began.
Who now has the courage to say this?
The writer is a former Democratic senator from Colorado.
2005 The Washington Post Company