Foreign affairs will be central to the outcome. Are the Democrats ready for their big curtain call?
The Republicans have invented a phony narrative that Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), defeated in his primary election, is a lonely voice of reason in a party rampant with lunatic bloggers, vicious anti-Semites, haters of Israel and friends of Al Qaeda. Lieberman, ever happy to do the White House's dirty work, is pushing this story line in his independent campaign.
The White House knows that the real debate on Iraq is between President Bush and Lieberman on one side and the majority of the country on the other. The Democratic electorate, divided on the war a year ago, is now almost unanimous in its opposition.
While the White House story is a fraud, there are foreign policy divisions among Democrats. The Republicans will make the election a referendum on their portrait of these divisions, so Democrats had better be ready.
Democrats can start with an aggressive critique of the oddball "Bush Doctrine" that brought us the Iraq War. Unlike Vietnam, which emerged from assumptions held by president after president, the Iraq War is uniquely the rogue work of one president.
Cheerfully immune to contrary evidence, Bush has pursued a grandiose American destiny to reshape the Middle East. Popular democracy can be imposed by military means, American soldiers will be treated as liberators, the masses in Arab nations are hungering for Western democracy and only the terrorists keep them from joining our team and celebrating Israel. They'll be so grateful that they will give us their oil at a discount.
The wreckage of Iraq deters Bush's enthusiasm for his project not one whit. His crew can't wait to try it out on Iran.
Bush described the horrific events in Lebanon as an "opportunity," and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice informed us that we were witnessing the "birth pangs of a new Middle East." American presidents, she told us, had coddled dictators in the Middle East. Now, she assured us, those days are gone. In other words, the mess in the Middle East is simply more evidence of the wisdom of Bush's doctrine.
Bush tells us that lack of democracy is the root cause of the region's problems. I always thought the root problems were the unwillingness of its neighbors to accept Israel and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. We saw the fruits of Bush's policy when the United States pushed for immediate Palestinian elections, only to find Hamas winning. What if Hezbollah calls for new elections in Lebanon and wins?
That the Bush doctrine is a catastrophic failure does not automatically turn the exact opposite into wisdom. The symbolic American eagle holds arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other. That duality is the key to national leadership. If Democrats can offer a strong foreign policy that is different from the radical Bush doctrine without sliding into a broadly antiwar posture, they will have earned their victory.
A real understanding of Israel's situation is a key to challenging the Bush doctrine. Democrats can draw on a broad American policy toward the Mideast, from which the Bush doctrine is an avowed aberration. Under Democratic and Republican presidents, American policy has involved strong support for Israel, close ties with moderate Arab regimes and the search for negotiated agreements between Israel and its neighbors.
Despite his strong support for Israel, Bush's doctrine has not made Israel safer. Is Israel safer today surrounded by a Hamas-led Palestinian territory, an Iraq no longer a counter to a hostile Iran and possibly soon to be an Iranian ally and Arab masses mobilized against the Iraq War?
Just as Republicans are torn by the Iraq War, though, Democrats are less united on the Middle East than they are on Iraq. A Pew Research Center poll found that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to unequivocally take Israel's side, while Democrats were divided between those who favored Israel and those who favored a "balanced" approach. Few in either party picked the "other side."
Republicans are likely to push hard on this wedge so that it can replace Iraq, a unifying issue for Democrats and a problem among Republicans. Republicans are right now furiously searching the Internet for anti-Israel comments coming from the left.
Despite Lieberman's self-image as a solo voice, pro-Israel Democrats dominate the national party leadership. They supported Israel's incursion into Lebanon as an act of self-defense. They are developing the outlines of a Democratic foreign policy.
There are also many Democrats who would rather see an Israel that is less militarily assertive and who believe that diplomacy will provide the best answer. While understanding the reasons for the incursion, they favored an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon. They are not traitors, friends of terrorists or anti-Semites.
The weight of the evidence, though, is on the side of the party leadership. The loss of civilian lives in Lebanon is deeply tragic, but Israel isn't on an adventure like Bush's Iraq War. Israel is fighting for its life.
Israel lives in a very tough neighborhood. The Israeli policy is blunt, old-fashioned deterrence based on a realistic assessment of its adversaries. While America does not have to support every Israeli action, we should give Israel the benefit of the doubt.
As often seems to happen, the ability to hammer out a successful policy on the Middle East is a metaphor for a party's whole foreign policy. If the Democrats can return us to an intelligent approach that mixes military strength with forceful diplomacy, that balances the arrows and the olive branch, then they will deserve to not only replace a failed party but to lead the nation.