Both Parties Struggle With War Message

It is absurdly early in the '08 campaign for pivotal moments, but Sen. Hillary Clinton's handlers were convinced they spotted one at the Democrats' first presidential debate, in South Carolina. Answering a question about how he would react to another Qaeda strike, Sen. Barack Obama talked about the lack of disaster preparedness in New Orleans and the need for reliable intelligence. He said that he would carefully target "some action to dismantle" the terrorists' network, but do so without the "bluster and bombast" that would "alienate the world community." The one thing he did not explicitly mention: the use of military force. Asked the same question by moderator Brian Williams of NBC, Clinton morphed into the commander in chief as aggrieved New Yorker. "I understand the extraordinary horror of that kind of attack," she said. "I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate." In Clinton's staff holding room at South Carolina State, there were smiles and high fives.

Obama's stolid reply and Clinton's saber-rattling illustrate an inherent Democratic tension. The party wants to pay homage to their increasingly vocal antiwar base. Yet they know—and nobody knows this better than Clinton—that they risk defeat if they fail to shake the notion that they are naive about the world's dangers and innately reluctant to use force of arms.

War is hell, Sherman remarked, and it is also playing havoc with the politics of 2008. Both sides are being buffeted by the winds of Bush's war. Democrats are flummoxed; Republicans apocalyptic—not the best recipe for a substantive campaign, even by the low standards of campaigns.

Uncertain about the future, Republicans are choosing to focus on fear. Under the Democrats, Rudy Giuliani says, we will "wave the white flag" of surrender in Iraq, and cut back domestic surveillance and border security. The country will be "safer with a Republican president." Democrats, he said, "do not seem to get the fact that there are really dangerous people who want to come here and kill us." Expect to hear a lot more of this from Giuliani and his fellow Republicans at their first debate this week, in Simi Valley, Calif. "Rudy is foreshadowing the whole campaign," says Dan Schnur, a GOP consultant. "Everybody knows what we will say in '08. The issue will be: what do Democrats say?"

That isn't clear. Against whom, precisely, would Hillary "retaliate" in a world of stateless villainy? After a mild start, Obama ended the debate in South Carolina on a bellicose note, insisting that Iran's nuclear ambitions were so dangerous that we could not rule out going to war over the issue. Had the debate lasted another round, he might have worked his way up to suggesting an invasion of Cuba.

Actually, if the candidates in either party are searching for a role model, they need to look no further than the site of the GOP debate: the Ronald Reagan Library. For all of his rootin'-tootin' rhetoric, Reagan was cautious about military force. In 1982, after sending Marines on a fateful, deadly mission to Lebanon, he took a second, closer look at the carnage of the Middle East—and called the troops home with all deliberate speed. There's a lesson there—and maybe, in the long run, shelter from the prevailing winds.