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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Beinart’s Challenge

The current issue of The New Republic features an article by its Editor, Peter Beinart, that’s creating a continuing and widening stir in Democratic circles. His argument, to boil it down to its essentials, is that today’s Democrats need to do what their predecessors did at the beginning of the Cold War: unambiguously make a commitment to warfare against totalitarianism (in this case, the illiberal ideology of jihadist Islam) central to the party’s message, and disassociate themselves from those who won’t make that commitment. The article is fascinating, in part because it serves as a reminder that Democrats actually did have an internal struggle, resolved by Harry Truman’s 1948 re-election, during which anti-anti-communists, emblemized by Henry Wallace, were a serious force in the party and in the labor movement.
Two comments on Beinart’s piece–both by Democrats who share his basic belief in a tough foreign policy message–illustrate the most debatable points of his argument. Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly’s Political Animal contests the analogy Beinart draws between Stalinist communism and Islamofascism, not in terms of their similarly toxic ideological content, but in terms of the tangible threat they pose to life and limb (in a follow-up post, Drum makes it clear he’s not denying the analogy, but is simply arguing that it needs to be demonstrated, and offers several useful distinctions in making that case). Beinart’s TNR colleague Noam Scheiber comes at the argument from a very different direction, arguing that the pragmatism of today’s anti-war Left gives Democratic leaders plenty of room to adopt the kind of message Beinart is promoting, which means that a loud intra-party fight or “purge” is unnecessary. Indeed, Scheiber says John Kerry erred crucially by failing to understand how far anti-war Democrats would let him go in establishing his anti-terrorist bona fides, and suggests future presidential candidates learn from his lesson.
As one who shares Scheiber’s belief that Kerry could have decisively changed the dynamics of the presidential race by arguing for a “win or leave” position on Iraq, I’m symphathetic to his argument. But I think Beinart’s right in suggesting that Democrats suffer significant political damage from association with highly visible public figures who basically share the European view that the U.S. has gotten unnecessarily hysterical about terrorism, perhaps for lurid reasons involving oil or Israel. Sure, Michael Moore endorsed Wes Clark, and then John Kerry, who do not agree with his apparent conviction that Bush is a greater threat to world peace than Osama bin Laden, or that Iraq was an innocent victim of U.S. aggression. But let’s don’t forget that Clark’s implosion in the primaries was significantly fed by his identification with Moore (remember that moment when Big Mike called Bush a “deserter” while standing next to Clark on a platform?), or how useful a figure Moore became in the demonology of the Bush campaign’s attacks on Kerry. Now, much more than in 1948, a candidate’s message can be muddled or distorted by the company he or she keeps.
That does not mean Democrats need to “purge” anybody. We are a coalition party, and none of us have the moral standing to apply litmus tests to any other Democrat. (Personally, I respect outright pacifists a great deal, even though I wouldn’t be happy with entrusting them with high elected office.) And moreover, as the public debate over national security focuses more on the future than on the past (i.e., the decision to invade Iraq, which divided Democrats but not Republicans), Democratic divisions are likely to abate to some extent.
What it does mean is that Democratic candidates have to make their own position on matters of war and peace as clear as possible, and to have the courage not only to stand up to a Republican president, but to discomfit fellow Democrats whose views of America’s role in the world are morally hazardous and politically disastrous. The war on terror simply is not a topic on which Democrats have the liberty to hedge or fudge or change the subject; for the foreseeable future, it will be a continuing threshold credibility test for the party and its candidates. On that fundamental premise, I’m pretty sure Beinart, Drum and Scheiber would agree. And as my colleague The Moose says, this is a “heated and much needed debate in the Democratic Party.”

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