Former Vice President Al Gore's conspiracy-theory speech last week thrilled some Democrats who opposed the war in Iraq. But it just as surely reinforced many voters' doubts that the Demo- crats can be trusted with the nation's security during a war on terrorism.
This should concern Democrats on two counts: First, while the party long has been vulnerable on national security, Mr. Gore has always been a stalwart on the issue. He was one of the few Democrats who voted for the Gulf War, and as vice president he rightly warned many times about the dangers of Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. Now he says Americans (and that includes nearly every Democrat in the Senate) were fooled into supporting the Iraq war by a clever Bush administration propaganda effort.
Second, most of the current pack of Democratic presidential candidates seems to be headed straight down this same dead-end siding, right behind Gore - some even ahead of him.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the Democrats' new star, has said he's not sure Iraqis are any better off now than they were - that's under a regime that gassed and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people and built luxury palaces while Iraqis went hungry. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, in response to Mr. Dean's rise in the polls, has walked a line on Iraq so fine one might almost think he had voted against the war.
Democrats lost several presidential elections during the cold war partly because the public did not trust them to stand up to the Soviet Union, preserve a strong military, and use force in international affairs if (unfortunately) necessary. If they aren't careful, Gore and many of the current presidential hopefuls will ship the Democrats on an express train right back to that same political wilderness.
Legitimate cases can be made against both the decision to go to war and the Bush administration's handling of the aftermath. But pretending that Hussein's regime posed no threat to international security is not the way to start. One candidate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, supported the war - yet has managed to criticize President Bush's foreign-policy record sharply while making clear he would decisively defend the American people and promote democracy.
If the polling data have it right, Democrats must move beyond simple carping on the war and vague references to "diplomacy." They must make clear how they would preserve US strength and security. Otherwise, it's unlikely voters will trust them with the White House anytime soon.