PRESIDENT BUSH, faced with plummeting support for the war in Iraq, keeps turning to an old standby. In another high-profile speech on Thursday, Bush warned Americans to be terrified of terror, and tried once again to tie Iraq to Al Qaeda and the attacks of 9/11.
The public isn't buying it. A large majority -- 64 to 32 in CBS polls -- opposes Bush's conduct of the war.
Yet the opposition party has been mostly missing in action. Democratic pollsters and political advisers seem to believe that with Bush failing as a war president Democrats should stay out of the way and let him sink.
There is an obsessive worry that Democrats, above all, cannot risk looking weak on defense. If the war keeps going badly and Democrats are seen as opposing it, one strategist told me, they risk getting the blame.
Senior foreign policy Democrats, such as Senators Joseph Biden, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, have been willing to criticize Bush's decision to take the country to war on false pretenses, as well as his conduct of the war. But they have not offered a serious discussion of how to get us out.
This mentality is the opposite of leadership. The failure of the opposition party to offer a coherent alternative is one reason why support for the Democrats has not been rising as support for Bush sinks. It is why Democrats have become the butt of Jay Leno jokes as not standing for anything.
One Democrat who has offered another course -- and he must be feeling very lonely -- is Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. He has urged the United States to make a commitment to get all combat troops out of Iraq by the end of 2006. As Feingold says, we need a coherent alternative to either ''stay the course" or ''cut and run." That alternative is phased withdrawal.
Feingold told a Los Angeles audience in late August: ''The president and others say that if we leave, it will just be chaos in Iraq. Well, right now when you come to Iraq, you can't even drive from the airport to the Green Zone" Even inside the supposedly secure Green Zone, Feingold recounted, he was given a helmet and flak jacket.
He added: ''The president says if we leave Iraq on some kind of a timetable, our enemies will know that we are weak. I would say that without a plan to finish, our enemies will know that we have fallen into a trap." Feingold further observed that by calling for a timetable for withdrawal, he had broken what had become a disabling ''taboo."
Critics of the war should be seriously exploring how a phased withdrawal would actually work. If the United States agreed to pull out, what role might NATO and the UN play? What could be expected of other states in the region?
Among many Democratic policy intellectuals unwilling to embrace a timetable for full withdrawal, the second-best is seen as a large reduction of troop levels. The idea is to pull back troops from forward positions where they are exposed to attack, and keep a smaller force garrisoned in Baghdad and other bases.
In principle, this is clever politics -- some troops could come home, and casualties might be reduced. The problem is that the countryside would essentially be ceded to insurgents, who would loudly proclaim their victory over the Great Satan. Iraq would actually be pushed closer to civil war. There would be just enough American troops to continue to be a lightning rod for armed insurgency, but far too few to pacify the place. A full withdrawal would make much more sense.
The dithering Democrats may find that public opinion has passed them by. In the most recent CBS news poll, American adults, by a large margin of 59 to 36, want the United States out of Iraq as soon as possible, even if the country is not stabilized. Among Democrats, the margin rises to 73 to 24, or 3 to 1.
Feingold is no radical. He gets elected in a swing state as a man of integrity and independence. He teamed up with Republican John McCain on campaign finance reform. He voted in favor of John Roberts for chief justice.
If the war is still going on in 2008, an antiwar candidate such as Feingold would be an odds-on favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination over bigger names disabled by their own fatal caution.
Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, can be reached at email@example.com. His column appears regularly in the Globe.