The Democrats Learned the Wrong Lesson From Vietnam, Too

Many observers were astonished when President Bush recently compared to Iraq to Vietnam, suggesting that a withdrawal would "pull the rug out from under the troops" and lead to a bloodbath. But if he's drawing the wrong conclusions from the Vietnam analogy, he's not the only one. Their memories of that war, and what happened afterward, have kept the Democratic leadership from doing what the voters elected them to do by ending the war in Iraq.

Call it the "Rambo syndrome." Those of us who lived through the Vietnam years - and the Rambo movies - will recall the political intent behind the Viet-vet hero's famous line to his former commanding officer: "This time, Sir, do we get permission to win?"

The Republicans presided over the the final disastrous and futile years of Vietnam, and they presided over losing the war, but they won the postwar political debate handily. According to conservative spinmasters, we didn't lose because it was an ill-conceived war, but because a Democratic House and Senate denied the troops "permission to win." If only they hadn't done that , conservatives argued, an eleven-year record of military failure would have miraculously turned around. The USA could have stood astride the world stage like Colossus, instead of limping across it like - to use Nixon's words - a "pitiful, helpless giant."

Absurd? Of course. Politically effective? Absolutely.

That's why Bush's Vietnam analogy shouldn't have been so surprising. (Well, okay, except for the Quiet American reference. That was surprising.)

Vietnam is the nightmare scenario that haunts the dreams of Rahm Emanuel. Of James Carville. Of Carl Levin. Of Hillary Clinton. It goes like this: Democrats de-fund the war in Iraq. Then something happens - say, another terror attack on U.S. soil. The Republicans tell voters that the Democrats denied America "permission to win." And the Democratic Party goes down in defeat. It would be the worst kind of 70's flashback.

That's why the Democrats are too timid to use their Congressional warmaking (and war-ending) authority. That's why Dems like Joe Biden and Jerry McNerney keep repeating the mantra of getting a "veto-proof majority" against the war. Most Democratic voters - and most Americans - would prefer a clean vote to withdraw. Most progressive Dems believe a Bush veto would seal the war as a Republican creature in the public's mind, making a de-funding bill politically smart as well as morally sound.

But the Democrats are cowering under the shadow of Vietnam. That's why Dems like McNerney keep talking about finding "sympathetic Republicans" to vote with them. And that's why they haven't found them. Because the Republicans remember Vietnam, too.

The specter of Vietnam isn't only haunting the Dems when it comes to Iraq, either. The FISA debacle - a hastily-passed and ambiguous bill that trashes the Constitution, passed as Congress left town - is another product of this post-Vietnam psychology. They were afraid that terrorists might strike during their August recess, and that voters would blame them. That fear trumped the Constitution in their political calculus.

Hillary Clinton's recent statement that another terror attack would benefit the Republicans also comes from a post-Vietnam mentality. Naomi Wolf misunderstood the criticism Sen. Clinton received when she called critics "naive." Actually, Sen. Clinton was right to name the issue, but wrong in her handling of it. Chris Dodd was wrong to call it tasteless, but Hillary was wrong to reinforce the media notion that Republicans would benefit from a terror attack.

So, are the Democrats right to be worried? I would argue that they are, but that they're handling it the wrong way. Take Sen. Clinton's statement: It was smart to name the pink elephant in the room - that Republicans exploit terror tragedy for political gain - but wrong of her to feed the belief that they will continue to benefit from it. She should have gone a step further and explained how the GOP has failed to protect America since 9/11. Democrats should be listing the Administration's national security failures , so that another attack will be seen as evidence of their incompetence in this area - just as the first one was.

As for Iraq, there's no doubt that the GOP and its media arm will try to spin any withdrawal as denying the troops "permission to win." But here's where the Democrats need to find some courage, or risk going down in flames. They were elected to stop this war, and their approval numbers are plunging because they haven't. What's more, their behavior is giving the public the impression that they are indecisive and weak.

Democrats need a "post-post-Vietnam" mentality, and a strategy to go along with it. They need to inoculate themselves against the Rambo syndrome by telling the public, plainly and directly, what their opposition will try to do to them. Repeat over and over again: "They will say anything to win elections, but we'll do what's right for the country." Create a mental association in the public's mind between "permission to win" language and the same cynical politics that has shattered the country in the last six years.

Will it work? There are only probabilities, not certainties. But this strategy is much more likely to work than today's timorous approach. And it has the added advantage of being the right thing to do.

That's gotta count for something, right?