Talk about swimming upstream.
Last week, an impressive group of centrist Democratic foreign policy thinkers released a thoughtful document urging the party to adopt a "progressive internationalism" built around a strong defense, free trade and American leadership through international alliances "to shape a world in which the values of liberal democracy increasingly hold sway."
As a long-term compass, the manifesto -- "Progressive Internationalism: A Democratic National Security Strategy" -- offers Democrats much sound guidance.
Signed by prominent party thinkers like Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, and Iraq expert Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, the paper updates for a new century the vision advanced by Democratic presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. In that tradition, the authors envision an America that expands its own security by working with allies to encourage the spread of trade and freedom around the globe -- but defends its interests with force when threatened.
The open question is whether the party has much interest now in resurrecting that legacy, or even whether it makes sense politically to do so.
The manifesto's underlying political calculation is that a Democrat must demonstrate strength as commander in chief to beat President Bush next year. But much of the Democratic left believes that if conditions in Iraq remain unsettled, Americans may prize prudence more than strength in their next president.
Probably the most important bet Democrats will place this winter will be whether to pick a nominee who symbolizes resolve in the use of military force (say Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri), or one whose primary message is caution about new interventions (like former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean).
As the violence in Iraq has escalated, the Democrats' balance of power has tilted sharply toward those selling caution.
Polls show the persistent instability in Iraq has raised doubts among Americans across the political spectrum about the administration's strategy. But among Democrats, those doubts are especially intense: In a poll released last week, one-third of rank-and-file Democrats said the U.S. should withdraw all its troops from Iraq. Nearly another 40% of Democrats said the U.S. should at least reduce its forces.
In that gale, even the Democratic presidential contenders who backed the war are whispering their support for maintaining the American presence in Iraq, while all the candidates are loudly demanding that Bush shift more of the responsibility for securing and rebuilding Iraq to other nations. It's not quite George S. McGovern's "Come Home America" refrain during Vietnam, but the debate is drifting in that direction.
The manifesto's authors want to shift the party toward an agenda that pursues international cooperation more energetically than Bush, but still acknowledges that America must often bear the greatest responsibility for confronting problems like Iraq. They believe, justifiably, that the challenge for Democrats in 2004 may be to oppose the way Bush has exercised force without sliding back into the reflexive hostility toward the use of force that characterized the party after Vietnam.
The manifesto aims to prove it is possible to strike that balance. It accepts three pillars of Bush's thinking on international security: that the war against terrorism is a long-term, consuming challenge like the Cold War; that preventing alliances between terrorists and rogue states with weapons of mass destruction "is one of the paramount challenges of our time"; and that the war was justified because Saddam Hussein "posed a grave danger to America."
Yet the authors maintain Bush's approach has "weakened America's security." They argue Bush has been too unilateral, too quick to emphasize military force over the economic and cultural tools in America's arsenal, too slow in fortifying defenses against terrorism at home, and too ideological in pursuing massive tax cuts when Washington faces huge bills to meet its new security demands.
They want Democrats to reinvigorate alliances, spend more on defense (while accelerating military reform), push faster to lower trade barriers (especially with Arab nations), work harder to encourage democratic reform in the Mideast, and spend more on homeland security.
Every Democratic presidential candidate, even Dean, echoes much of this thinking, especially the priority on strengthening alliances. But the authors' Roosevelt-like vision of a muscular, free-trading, interventionist America isn't fully shared by any of the Democratic contenders except Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who is languishing in the polls. And by endorsing the war in Iraq, the authors have placed themselves on the retreating side of a civil war in the party.
It's clear that many Democratic activists want a nominee who will argue that the war in Iraq has made America less safe -- a view that Dean, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and possibly even Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts would carry into the general election.
The authors of the "Progressive Internationalism" blueprint are convinced that's a formula for electoral suicide. But with car bombs and steady casualties dominating the headlines from Iraq, it's no longer clear, even to some of the war's most ardent supporters, that skepticism about the invasion and occupation is a guaranteed political loser.
"You tell me what happens in Iraq, I'll tell you whether [opposition to the war] is good or bad for the Democrats," says Republican strategist Bill Kristol, one of the war's leading proponents. "The more I think about this election, the more it hinges on what happens on the ground in Iraq and around the world rather than the tactics of Bush or the Democrats. I think it has become a referendum on the war in Iraq, and more broadly on the Bush doctrine -- his response to Sept. 11."
Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times' Web site at www.latimes.com/brownstein.