Plain talk is a luxury in politics. Politicians are frightened by it. Nearly everyone in both parties loves to invoke Harry Truman, the patron saint of the candidate down 15 points on election eve, but nobody has the kidney to be the man from Independence.
The Republicans are particularly addicted to the shuffle, an apology, the tugged forelock followed by another apology. But voters reward plain talkers. George W. Bush has his presidency on the line with the war against the Islamist terrorists, but he hasn't quite put the issue in the plainest of the talk voters most want to hear. Many of his allies in the Congress aren't even mumbling, but whimpering.
Many of the president's friends have bought the myth that going to war in Iraq was a fool's errand, that the war there is unwinnable. The Democratic left, almost all that's left of the party of Jefferson, Jackson, FDR and Truman, compares the war in Iraq to the war in Vietnam. This is meant to be the argument stopper.
A visitor to Washington this week challenges that conclusion. The war in Vietnam dented American prestige in Asia and put the ruling American elites in therapy for a generation, Lee Kwan Yew, the founding father of the Republic of Singapore, told Americans this week, but there were "enormous collateral benefits" to Asia. "It prevented the dominoes of Southeast Asia Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia from falling," he told scholars at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, "and it changed China's attitude toward Vietnam ... it stopped [Vietnam] from threatening Thailand. ... Without U.S. intervention there would never have been the four Asian dragons South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore followed by the four tigers Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines."
Not a bad decade's work for the Americans willing to take abuse, vilification and insult from a left that was considerably stronger then than now.
Mr. Lee, now the "minister mentor" of his government, cites several mistakes he believes the Americans have made in execution of the war in Iraq, beginning with miscalculations about how big, how complicated the job would be. Nevertheless. "I am not among those who say that it was wrong to have gone into Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein and who now advocate that the United States cut losses in Iraq and pull out. ... If the United States leaves Iraq prematurely, jihadists everywhere will be emboldened to take the battle to America and to all her friends and allies. Having defeated the Russians in Afghanistan and the Americans in Iraq, they will believe that they can change the world." There would be no dragons, no tigers for the Middle East, only more snakes and more scorpions.
The implications of forgetting the real lessons of the war in Vietnam, and how they apply in the Middle East, are difficult for politicians to put into plain talk. Pols, particularly Republican pols, think they can escape criticism with a smile, a shoeshine and a shuffle. Speaking plain about the consequences of losing the war in Iraq would invite abuse and media mocking, but once they absorbed it the voters would throw out equivocating Democrats, not undeserving Republicans.
Once voters absorbed the vision the Democrats have for raising taxes and restoring the hobbles to the economy, they might not have an appetite for punishing the Republicans if it means double-digit inflation and interest rates that come with Democratic tax increases.
It's fashionable in certain precincts now to sneer at the "values" which brought Republicans to power in the Congress. But once the consequences of installing Nancy Pelosi and the values of the San Francisco Democrats are persuasively explained, throwing out Republican rascals would wait for another day.
With three weeks go to, there's still time for Republicans to make their case, but just, and the job will require plain talk beginning now, maybe even asking "what would Harry do?" And then to do it, without apology, contrition, pangs or qualm. This may be asking Republicans for too much.