The Democrats retook both houses of Congress after all these years not because they have put their act together, but because the Republicans, weighed down by the inert mass of President Bush, sank too low to hold on to power. In other words, the Democrats won by virtue of being the "not-Republicans" and not through any strengths or a program of their own.
This is a big problem for those of us who would like to see real change. To consolidate their gains, and recapture the Presidency in 2008, the Democrats need to come in hard, fast, smart and well-organized. All this fighting over influence, committee chairmanships and who is to be majority leader is already undermining the proposition that the party is unified and focused. If the Democrats dawdle and doodle after January 1 the same way they have been doing since the Reagan administration, then we are going nowhere in a hurry, and they may not even take the Presidency.
The single most important issue on the table today is of course Iraq, and the Democrats have articulated no program whatever, except the "not-Republican" credo: "We are not the ones who got you in to this mess." As appealing as power is at any time, the problem of cleaning up the mess that Cheney and Rumsfeld have made is an almost unsolvable one. Iraq is truly of the nature of problems which are easy to avoid and extremely hard to clean up. Iraq is like a highly toxic chemical spill: it could have been avoided if there had been slightly better navigational procedures in place, or if the helmsman hadn't taken a drink. Now that the chemicals are in the ocean, they are going to take a bunch of lives before they go away, and there is little we can do about it. I can imagine the more considerate and cautious heads in the Democratic party waking from anxiety dreams at 4 a.m. with a trailing thought: how about refusing to let the Republicans off the hook, tell them to clean up the mess they made, and then we'll take it from there? Very rude of them to start something like Iraq, then just hand it to us and say, "Here, you finish this."
The threshold decision with Iraq is: more troops, or fewer? There is no comfort in either alternative. Pulling out troops means dumping Iraq as we dumped our allies in Vietnam; the worst, most violent and best armed element will take over, the country will become a refuge of international terrorism (as it was not when Saddam was in charge) and more Americans will die because we intervened and then failed to finish the job. A post-American Iraq will be worse than a pre-American Afghanistan.
America has the reputation of lacking the political and moral will to finish costly jobs. Reagan's decision to pull out of Lebanon after a car bomb killed 241 American marines was an early post-Vietnam example, as was Bill Clinton's failure in Somalia. Letters between major Al Qaeda figures have been intercepted discussing and interpreting this phenomenon; Al Qaeda believes with historical justification that if enough of us are killed in terrorist attacks we will lose interest in the fight and go back to watching "American Idol".
The Democrats are talking vaguely of cutting troop levels in Iraq, which will certainly lead within a few years to the creation of a super-Afghanistan lobbing continual terrorist initiatives at the rest of the world. John McCain is the sole politician right now with the courage and the initiative to call for a troop increase. I find the philosophy sympathetic, of finishing a job we shouldn't have started in such a way as not to make things worse. But who knows what troop levels would be adequate today? General Shinseki lost his job for calling for a quarter million troops, about twice what his bosses had committed. Would a half million do it today? A million? It couldn't be done without reinstituting the draft, something the American people would likely not sit still for. Unfortunately, as the terrorists understand, we want achievement without sacrifice, power without blood, a free lunch at all times, as our leaders, our entertainment media, and the press have been teaching us is possible and desirable for the last sixty years.
The Democrats rode the tides of public opinion into office; there is no indication yet that they are in command, navigating their boat with a firm hand and cool eye. They seem very far removed from being able to make decisions about winning the war, dealing with Al Qaeda, preserving national security by backing off the enemies who Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld idiotically empowered.
There is a huge difference between winning and governing.