News your connection to The Boston Globe


They've got the money, the momentum, and what looks like history on their side. But a Democratic victory in 2008 is no sure thing.

In recent weeks, there's been a giddiness in liberal circles when the subject of the 2008 presidential election comes up. You can feel a buoyancy, an expectation that this will finally -- inevitably -- be the Democrats' year.

To many people, it seems self-evident: The war in Iraq has become a debacle, and Al Qaeda has regrouped. President Bush's approval ratings are dismal (between 26 and 33 percent in various July surveys). The Republican party is imploding, as each month some new species of malcontent -- a Christian traditionalist, a tax cutter, a libertarian -- gripes that Bush has abandoned "true" conservatism. In Congress, the party has sundered over not just the war but also Bush's top domestic priorities, most notably immigration reform. And no GOP presidential candidate has emerged, as Bush did in 2000, to unite the rancorous factions, including the ever-important religious right.

Meanwhile, the Democrats, fresh off their 2006 capture of both the House and the Senate, appear stronger than at any time since before 9/11. More voters identify as Democrats than as Republicans. More unexpectedly, as The Wall Street Journal reported on its front page last week, the party's presidential candidates have raised $100 million more than their GOP rivals. Not for nothing have two of the sharpest political analysts around, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, written a cover story for the liberal magazine The American Prospect asserting that the "emerging Democratic majority" they foresaw in 2002 is finally at hand.

In short, how can the Democrats lose?

Easy. The Republicans possess certain advantages that are too often overlooked, including a built-in edge in the electoral college, Bush's impending exit from the political picture, and several candidates with potential across-the-board appeal. The Democrats have improved their national fortunes since the 1990s by getting swing voters to return to their fold, but on the Iraq war, the party at times seems to be echoing its Vietnam-era posture on national security, when it lost the nation's trust on matters of war and peace. Such a course could alienate independent and centrist voters all over again and usher in another four years of Republican rule.

The first myth to dispel is that of Democratic momentum. It's tempting to regard the Democrats' 2006 triumphs as rock-hard proof that a new liberal wind is blowing. But as a historical matter, the party that wins the Senate or House in an off-year election has no discernible advantage when seeking the presidency two years later.

In 1948, two years after seizing control of Congress, the Republicans not only failed to oust Democrat Harry Truman from the White House but even ceded back control of both chambers. In 1988, two years after regaining the Senate, Democrats still couldn't capture the presidency. Indeed, not since 1920 has either party taken the presidency after winning control of Congress in the preceding midterms -- a historical tidbit that, if statistically trivial, warns against making any assumptions about 2008.

If the midterm victories don't guarantee a shift, what about the dissatisfaction with Bush? Though the president's unpopularity has reached historic levels, it too offers fewer grounds for Democratic optimism than many suppose.

After all, the arithmetic that made winning the electoral college such a challenge for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 remains largely unchanged. In 2008, the Republicans will again be able to bank on a solid South (excepting perhaps in increasingly Democratic Virginia) and a nearly solid interior West, while the Democrats can expect to carry the Northeast and the Pacific Coast.

This electoral map, far from producing a level playing field, gives the Republicans an edge without taking into account the "battleground" states. So even if the Democrats have bettered their chances in Ohio, they'll still have to "run the table" of swing states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to reach the magic 270 electoral votes -- a tall order in 2008, just as it was in previous years.

Equally important, Bush's toxicity won't necessarily contaminate his Republican heir. It's safe to say that Dick Cheney or Alberto Gonzales would have a hard time getting elected jailer at Guantanamo, let alone president. But the public doesn't link any of the likely GOP nominees -- Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Fred Thompson, or Mitt Romney -- with Bush. Indeed, each has established a maverick or outsider image that can appeal to swing voters.

In particular, Giuliani, the front-runner in the national polls, delights many conservatives with his hard-right positions on social issues (abortion excepted) -- from his opposition to strict church-state separation to his draconian law-and-order stance -- while also retaining cachet among independents thanks to his post-9/11 prominence. Indeed, in many of the hypothetical head-to-head contests that pollsters ask about, Giuliani beats all Democratic comers. (In contrast, the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, while having done much to win over former skeptics, still elicits intense dislike in many quarters.)

Moreover, while all these Republican candidates support the war, hawkishness alone may not be the inherent liability that many pundits assume it to be. A recent New York Times poll even showed a rise in public support for the original invasion of Iraq. A candidate who argues skillfully that new leadership and policies will conjure victory from defeat in Iraq may thus appeal to voters twice over: First, by promising a break from Bush's failed approach; second, by presenting an upbeat contrast to defeatist rhetoric -- like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's imprudent remark last spring that the "war is lost" -- that induces shame and resentment and triggers charges (albeit scurrilous ones) of forsaking the troops.

In other words, opposition to the war itself -- as distinct from criticism of Bush's prosecution of it -- may not be a sine qua non for success in 2008. Opinion polls and daily journalism tend to elide the differences among Bush's Democratic critics, not all of whom would prefer an immediate or rapid withdrawal. Some favor a more aggressive military approach, some want a new policy other than withdrawal, and some desire what may be an impossibility: a speedy end to the war that won't risk leaving Islamist terrorists free to organize in Iraq. ("If Congress isn't ready to really go over there with enough force to change things now we might as well get out," one respondent to the Times poll said, expressing the kind of complex sentiment that numeric measures can never capture. "Either push the envelope and make it happen or leave it alone.")

Despite claims to the contrary, it should be remembered that Democrats' victories in the 2006 midterms, while a repudiation of Bush's policies, hardly represented an unequivocal call for a quick pullout from Iraq.

There's yet another reason to think that the Democrats' antiwar strategy, despite the overwhelming disapproval of Bush's handling of Iraq and the defections within the Republican ranks, carries great risks: recent history.

Drawing parallels between Iraq and Vietnam is of course treacherous. The two wars, the political climates of the two eras, and the composition of the political parties then and now, are more different than alike. Still, the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972 may be instructive.

In 1968, Richard Nixon won votes from both hawks and doves -- and thus the presidency -- by promising to bring "peace with honor" in Vietnam. Though he never revealed how he planned to do it, his reputation as an experienced foreign-policy hand assuaged many doubts.

As it happened, Nixon didn't have a plan, and in 1971, as his reelection fight loomed, the war was threatening his chances for a second term. But he dusted off his statesman garb, staging high-profile trips to China and Russia, and Americans accepted that he meant to wind down the war. He was helped by the premature election-eve claim by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, that peace was "at hand."

He was also helped by Democrat George McGovern's excessively isolationist statements. By 1972 most Americans did believe the Vietnam War was lost. But they bristled at the way in which McGovern spoke of withdrawal: calling for an immediate cessation of all bombing, promising a complete pullout within 90 days of taking office, bashing America's South Vietnamese allies, vowing to "beg" for the release of American POWs. That Nixon had failed to attain peace in the four years allotted to him seemed not to matter much; polls showed that voters considered him, and not McGovern, the candidate more likely to end the war quickly.

After Nixon's rout of McGovern, Democrats fell on hard times. The party's dovish image, Jimmy Carter's inability to free the hostages taken in Tehran, and Ronald Reagan's jingoistic posturing all reinforced an image of the party as timid or incompetent in using American military power.

In the 1990s, however, Democrats started to be competitive again nationally, in part because they regained credibility on matters of war and defense. The fall of communism and the qualified success of the first Gulf War reminded many liberals that the world would welcome acts of American leadership, including military leadership, that enjoyed widespread legitimacy. Under Bill Clinton, successful interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo and strategic applications of military force against Iraq helped Democrats fashion a public image that contrasted with the old McGovernite isolationism.

Although the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sent voters back to the GOP as the party of military might, the Democrats largely stuck by their newly robust liberal internationalist vision -- and remained viable. Virtually all the Democratic presidential candidates in 2004, including the antiwar darling Howard Dean, took pains to show that they didn't blanch at using force. John Kerry's hawkish stands, in the end, got him pretty far; the flashbacks to his protesting days hurt him more than his 2002 vote to support the war.

Yet the Democrats' newfound credibility on defense remains fragile. In the wake of the Iraq debacle it could be easily shattered by a rash embrace of the wrong kind of antiwar position. Recent moves on the hard left -- antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan's talk of targeting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a primary; Move On's attacks on Senator Carl Levin, a thoroughgoing liberal, for not backing a particular antiwar measure -- present both a threat and an opportunity. The danger for the Democrats is that by courting these activists, they will alienate the center; the opportunity is that the extreme left can serve as a foil to an internationalist vision that includes a plan to extract American troops from Iraq while minimizing the harmful consequences.

On the eve of last fall's elections, Howard Dean, by then the Democratic National Chairman, said repeatedly on TV interview shows that even if the Democrats won the Congress, Bush would still control foreign policy. Not only did this comment reflect political reality -- Democrats have struggled in vain since January to get Bush to change course in Iraq -- but it also signaled voters that the Democrats had no intention of taking on any additional responsibility for a war that the president had already done so much to botch.

In recent months, though, Congressional Democrats, pressing ever harder to set war policy from Capitol Hill, have wandered into the trap that Dean warned against. Instead of maintaining that only the election of a Democratic president will end the war, they have exposed themselves on two flanks and harmed their own public standing. From the right, they opened themselves to charges of micromanaging the war and undercutting the troops. On the left, they have falsely raised hopes that the war might end sooner than is actually possible. Among the candidates, only Clinton and Joe Biden are conspicuously resisting pressures to stake out the leftmost position on Iraq. The others, led by John Edwards, seem to be vying to outdo one another in declaring their eagerness for a rapid pullout.

Such a strategy may help win the party's nomination. But in the fall of 2008, with war, terrorism, and national security still looming as critical issues, the burden will be on the Democratic nominee to prove that he or she will offer stronger leadership than a Republican -- especially a Republican who isn't George W. Bush.

In recent weeks, there's been a giddiness in liberal circles when the subject of the 2008 presidential election comes up. You can feel a buoyancy, an expectation that this will finally -- inevitably -- be the Democrats' year.

David Greenberg teaches history and media studies at Rutgers University and is the author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image" and "Calvin Coolidge." I