ON THE EVE of the Normandy invasion in 1944, General George S. Patton, addressing the men of the US Third Army, delivered a speech that would become legendary long before George C. Scott reenacted it on a Hollywood soundstage.
"Americans love a winner," Patton growled, "and will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win -- all the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. . . . The very thought of losing is hateful to an American."
Nowadays, the thought of losing a war isn't as hateful to some Americans as the thought of losing an election. Recall MoveOn.org's infamous "General Betray Us" ad last fall, which was intended to undercut the commander of US forces in Iraq. Think of Senate majority leader Harry Reid's insistence that "this war is lost and the surge is not accomplishing anything," or Barack Obama's unbudging claim that the "strategy is failed" and we must "get our troops out," or Hillary Clinton's vow that "starting on day one of my presidency, we will begin . . . to withdraw our troops within 60 days."
Were Patton alive today, his opinion of such defeatism would assuredly be unflattering -- and unprintable. But his conviction that Americans have no patience for losers would be reinforced by the public's mounting confidence that the war in Iraq will be won.
According to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans, 53 percent, are now convinced that the United States will "succeed . . . in achieving its goals" in Iraq. A year ago, just 30 percent of the public thought the military effort in Iraq was going "very well" or "fairly well." That optimistic view is held today by 48 percent.
In September, the proportion of Americans wanting US troops to remain in Iraq stood at 39 percent. Five months later, it has climbed to 47 percent. Where will it be five months hence? And will the leading lights of the Democratic Party still be promising, as Clinton did in Pennsylvania the other day, to "end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home?" Could the Democrats' insistence on abandoning the field have anything to do with the fact that while nearly half of registered voters (in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll) consider it "very likely" that John McCain would be an "effective commander in chief," fewer than 25 percent say the same about Clinton or Obama? Or that McCain, in the Times's words, "is seen as better prepared for the presidency [and] better able to handle an international crisis . . . than either of the Democratic candidates"?
Anything can happen between now and the presidential election, of course, and there is no guarantee that Iraq will be uppermost in voters' minds in November -- particularly if the economy continues to darken. The disfavor in which Republicans are held by the public should not be minimized: Asked which party could do a better job in 12 key areas -- taxes, immigration, foreign policy, etc. -- respondents in the Pew survey chose the Democrats 11 times. (The lone exception was the handling of terrorist threats.)
But for all those caveats, a nation at war needs a wartime leader, and nothing distinguishes McCain from Clinton and Obama more dramatically than his outspoken commitment not just to victory in Iraq, but to the "surge" strategy that has made that victory probable.
John Podhoretz argues convincingly in the March issue of Commentary that it was the absence of such a strategy for victory that led to the repudiation of the Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections. President Bush had won a second term in 2004 by making his reelection a referendum on the decision to invade Iraq. But over the two years that followed, the news from Iraq grew steadily worse, and the administration seemed bereft of any plan other than "stay the course" for turning things around. The GOP paid a stiff price for the bloody mess in Iraq: It lost its congressional majority.
The Democrats, misinterpreting their victory as a mandate to end the war, promptly introduced legislation to bring the troops home. But one after another, their bills went down to defeat, and the approval ratings of the new Congress plummeted.
"Failure to win in Iraq -- not the fact of the war itself," Podhoretz writes, is what galvanized the electorate in 2006. Now, ironically, thanks to the surge McCain embraced and the victory it has made possible, "the best political news for Republicans . . . may come out of Iraq." The irony is one General Patton would have savored.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)