Mary Dejevsky: From now on, the Democrats face the hard choices

With Rumsfeld gone, they have lost another weapon in their armoury
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The Independent Online

After the rout of the Republicans in Tuesday's US midterm elections, the obvious question is the one that will be the subject of panicked soul-searching in Republican conclaves in the days and weeks to come: whither the party now and what on earth can Republicans do to retain the White House in two years' time?

There is, however, a less obvious, but far trickier question, which is this. How do the jubilant Democrats maximise their chances of retaining control of Congress and capturing the presidency in 2008? Resting on their laurels and waiting for George Bush's next epic mistake will probably not be enough.

This election was fought on the Iraq war - an unpopular war that also embodied all that Americans had come to fear and loathe about Bush. As the Democrats' campaign advertising illustrated so clearly, George Bush was their party's lethal weapon. Many Republican candidates acknowledged it too, which is why the would-be governor of Florida chose to campaign elsewhere on the day the President came to stump in his state. (It showed sound judgement, by the way. Charlie Crist won, and will succeed another figure conspicuous by his absence from the campaign: the President's younger brother, Jeb.)

In 2008, however, George Bush will not be on the ballot. Nor - even if he keeps his job and his health until then - will the Vice-President, Dick Cheney. That Cheney has no presidential ambitions gives the Republicans another advantage. It means Bush will not be constrained, as was Bill Clinton in his last months, by the need not to impair his deputy's chances.

He will be free instead, if he so chooses, to concentrate on two priorities: his legacy and making his party electable again. Perverse though it seems, those two objectives could coincide. Perversely, too, the Republicans' loss of both Houses of Congress allows Bush - in fact, almost forces him - to distance himself from his first six years in office.

In dismissing his defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, Bush was not just finding a scapegoat for the election defeat. He was demonstratively turning away from the Iraq war as conceived and fought by his administration. Announcing Rumsfeld's departure, Bush made a point of saying he was seeking "a new perspective" for a war that had not turned out as he had hoped. Some may dismiss this as crowd-pleasing prattle. But the new defence secretary is quite a different character from "Rummy".

With Rumsfeld gone - at the President's instigation and not at theirs - the Democrats have lost another weapon in their armoury. And if Bush is serious about "a new perspective" - which surely translates as an early withdrawal of US troops without precipitating a worse bloodbath than is already in progress - the Democrats risk being entirely disarmed. To win in 2008, they will need to equip themselves differently.

From now on, the hard choices almost all belong to them and not to the Republicans. They must tread delicately between their desire to expose the enormity of the Iraq débâcle and the need not to seem negative and obstructive. The Republicans will need no prompting to remind them - and the voters - that the lives of US soldiers and the future of Iraq are both at stake.

If the Democrats seem too accommodating, however, they risk appearing supine, leaving voters with the impression that it hardly matters whether they or the Republicans are in charge. If the future of Iraq is to revert to being a cross-party issue, they need to find some quick and eye-catching issues that point up the differences between themselves and the Republicans in a way voters will see as positive.

One option would be to go after US government contracts, cronyism and corruption in Iraq. Another would be to challenge the choice of John Bolton as UN ambassador. If Bush hopes for an international solution for Iraq, he might pre-empt them by nominating a more flexible and internationally-minded ambassador before January.

Most of all, the Democrats must be wary of preparing to fight the next campaign with the obsolete weapons of the last. There is no point in inveighing against the war or hunting down so-called "neocons" in the administration because, by and large, Bush has done their work for them. The one certainty about 2008 is that the Republican Party will have purged every last vestige of neoconservatism.

In two years, the Democrats could find themselves fighting a Republican Party that looks much more like that of George H W Bush than the one that allowed itself to be blinded by the ideological certainty and fundraising genius of George W. It is the Democrats, even more than the Republicans, who should be looking for fresh ideas to match the new reality.