WASHINGTON - When President Bush, in his second inaugural address, pledged to "support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," he seemed to be speaking for the whole country.
But two years later, a disillusioned U.S. public, sobered by the war in Iraq and still fearful of more terrorist attacks here at home, is ready to settle for a less idealistic goal - protecting the United States and its vital interests.
That is the main lesson of a poll that was released to me last week by the leaders of Third Way, a left-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank, and is now available online at www.third-way.com. It is something the presidential candidates might well read. It was done by a reputable firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, interviewing a sample of 807 registered voters between Jan. 30 and Feb. 4. The challenge the survey presents is a large one.
To be blunt, the Bush prescription for U.S. foreign policy - an aggressive effort to expand freedom and democracy around the globe - has lost its credibility. But neither Republicans nor Democrats are widely trusted to construct a new policy.
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Two-thirds of political independents - the swing voters - agree with the statements that Republicans are too quick to use military force instead of diplomacy and are too stubborn in refusing to negotiate with hostile countries. But by nearly as large a margin, those same independents agree that Democrats are not tough enough to do what is needed to protect America and are unwilling to use military force, even when it's necessary for national security.
Overall, independents have moved closer to Democratic positions on foreign policy, meaning that the Republicans' almost-automatic advantage on national security issues might be a thing of the past.
Those doubts leave Americans in a quandary - and very worried about the future. Matt Bennett, a vice president of Third Way, told me, "Candidates need to recognize Americans have been shaken in their confidence."
The 9/11 attacks, more than five years old, remain a vivid threat. Contrary to Vice President Cheney, large majorities - including most Republicans - reject his contention that the absence of a second attack means we are safer. Instead, they say the threat of terrorism has increased since 9/11, and they also believe that the war in Iraq has made us less safe, not more.
Practicality now trumps idealism at every turn. Endorsements of U.S. policy by allies and international organizations are highly valued. By a margin of 58 percent to 38 percent, those polled agree with the statement that "if negotiating with countries that support terrorism, like Iran and Syria, will help protect our security interests, the United States should consider negotiating with them."
But practicality is far from a complete policy. What people really want is a way of looking at the world - and understanding America's part in it - a narrative that would replace the rejected Bush scenario. As William Galston of the Brookings Institution, who was a consultant on the poll, remarked to me, "Until now, most of the candidate-posturing has centered on Iraq." But this poll suggests a deeper need. "People are looking for a candidate who suggests a way to defend our essential interests while regaining some of our lost esteem."
Who is up to the task?
David Broder, a columnist for the Washington Post, can be reached at email@example.com.