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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lessons Learned, Part II

The next stop in the discussion of lessons learned during this painful Year of Our Lord 2004 is the subject of Democrats’ difficulties in projecting a strong and confident message and agenda on national security.
There’s a reasonably broad consensus among Democrats on the importance of this problem for the Kerry campaign, though (a) there are still those who believe Kerry should have largely conceded the issue to Bush and just hammered away at the economy and health care, and (b) there are even more (perhaps four out of five supporters of a certain Doctor) whose idea of a “strong and confident” security message was to simply and loudly oppose the invasion of Iraq. At the other end of the consensus are those, for whom The New Republic has been the major post-election sounding board, who think security dwarfs every other Democratic handicap, and who argue for a forceful repudiation of non-interventionist and “soft multilateralist” views as a threshold requirement for Democratic recovery.
Perhaps the first step we should take in properly assessing the security issue is to recall that this has been a persistent problem for at least a quarter-century. Anyone who didn’t live through the Carter administration as a news-watching adult can barely imagine the extent to which the last pre-Clinton Democratic president became identified with U.S. weakness and futility. The botched hostage rescue attempt in 1980 was the absolute nadir in modern American military and diplomatic prestige. And in the 1980s and through the First Gulf War, Democrats were divided on national security issues, while Republicans got (unearned) credit for the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and a series of easy military victories in Granada, Panama and Iraq.
Bill Clinton did a lot to lay to rest the post-Vietnam legacy of weakness and division of the Democratic Party on security matters by deploying military force, though the Kosovo intervention was the only action that resembled the previous administrations’ relatively cost-free victories.
But frankly, and this is important to remember today, the American people did not much care. You probably have to go back to the mid-1930s to find a time when the U.S. population was so resolutely uninterested in world events as it was in the 1990s. Mark Penn did a survey for the DLC in 1997 that used a technique called “conjoint analysis,” which aimed at discovering which options in policy positions in four broad areas (economy, role of government, “values” and international affairs) most determined the decision to vote for one candidate over another. To our shock (and, as Democratic internationalists, our dismay), Penn found that there was virtually no position on international issues, encompassing national security, foreign relations, and trade, that could “turn” a voter. And this disinterest was not simply a matter of post-Cold War fatigue or “isolationism:” political and economic freedom appeared to be sweeping the globe with little or no direct involvement by the U.S. government or military. Aside from Kosovo, the “national security” debates of the Clinton era generally revolved around exactly how fast to pare back defense spending, along with relatively marginal arguments about military pay, base closing decisions, and a few weapons systems.
So: when it is said that “9/11 changed everything” in terms of the political importance of national security, we should remember that the sense of disjunction was partly attributable to the remarkable, and historically anomalous, 1991-2001 era it replaced. In many respects, the country returned to its pre-1991 psychology, which included persistent doubts about the national security credentials of the Democratic Party. And that’s the background–raised in even higher relief by a 2002 cycle in which Democrats kept trying to change the subject to domestic issues–against which the impact of national security on the 2004 presidential election must be assessed.
At an analytical level, John Kerry did a creditable job of handling national security issues, especially towards the end of the campaign when he consistently blasted the administration for an Iraq adventure that distracted from the war on terrorism, essentially adopting the Bob Graham-Wes Clark “right idea, wrong Arabs” approach of opposing the war on national security grounds. But he never achieved the simplicity of the Graham-Clark message, in part because of his own wandering views on Iraq, and in part because the other elements of his national security agenda sounded like a Foreign Service School master’s thesis, which a lot of fine detail but little in the way of a clear overarching theme. And that’s where Bush and his allies really nailed him as a guy who had trouble making decisions about national security without an extraordinary number of qualifiers. The “87 billion” issue was devastating because it offered what appeared to be a simple choice of supplying the troops or not, and Kerry came across as a guy who couldn’t satisfy the commander-in-chief qualification of decisiveness on national security, running against an incumbent whose message was that he would never think twice about using force when he thought it was necessary to protect the country and its interests.
Mesmerized no doubt by polls showing increasing public doubts about the wisdom of the Iraq war, Kerry’s advisers pushed him to exploit that weakness at every stop. In the end, however, the folly of the admninistration’s Iraq policy did little or nothing to undermine public faith in Bush’s record on fighting terrorism generally, and that, not Iraq, was the ball game on national security. At a subrational level, many Americans who were disturbed by the course of events in Iraq–and retroactively, by the deceptions Bush used to get the war going–probably sized up Bush as follows: some Arabs killed a lot of Americans; Bush killed a lot of Arabs, and whatever else happened, there were no more attacks on the United States. Kerry’s critique of Bush’s record never adequately addressed those feelings, while reinforcing Republican claims that Kerry would be another Jimmy Carter, all talk and deliberation, but little or no action in difficult cases.
Now that we are past the “first-post-9/11” presidential election, and the original decision to invade Iraq is becoming less relevant to the present situation, are Democrats over the worst of their national security handicap? Can they unite around a credible and distinct message and agenda that convinces a majority of Americans they can be trusted to defend the country decisively, but more intelligently than the bellicose and unilateralist GOP?
There are real grounds for optimism here. At the level of policy elites, there’s not a lot of disagreement among Democratic foreign policy thinkers about the road forward for America, even if there remain disagreements about the road that led us to Baghdad. Early this year, the DLC’s think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, helped put together a manifesto entitled Progressive Internationalism that presented a tough, smart, clear foreign policy strategy for the country that was highly critical of Bush without succumbing to defeatism in the war on terror or ignoring the real differences that will continue to cause problems between the U.S., our traditional allies, and multilateral organizations. A very broad array of Democratic foreign policy gurus signed onto this document. It’s probably a good first draft for Democratic unity on international issues going into the next election cycle.
But on the other hand, there are differences of opinion among Democrats–especially among party activists–that go deeper than Iraq. As University of Maryland professor and long-time DLC advisor (and, for the record, a vocal opponent of the decision to invade Iraq) Bill Galston has often pointed out, when asked if they believe U.S. military power is, on balance, a force for good or evil in the world, Americans endorse the positive view by a four-to-one margin. But the vast majority of the 20% who take what might be called the Michael Moore position are Democrats. This is the reality that led Peter Beinart in his now-famous post-election essay to argue that Democrats will never shake their reputation of weakness, irresolution, and yes, even anti-Americanism until they decisively repudiate this point of view, even if it means intra-party heartburn.
Now, it’s possible that after another four year of governance by George W. Bush that 20% figure will rise to something approaching an electoral majority (though it almost certainly will not do so in places like the South). And it’s also possible, as Noam Scheiber argued in his response to Beinart, that Michael Moore Democrats will loyally support an overall foreign policy they don’t necessarily agree with in the broader interest of getting rid of the incompetent warmongers of the GOP. But unsettling as it is, this is a subject that will require continued, honest debate among Democrats over the next two-to-four years.
The main lesson we learned on national security in 2004 can be summed up by the warning Bill Clinton provided Democrats nearly two years ago: given a choice, Americans will support candidates who are strong and wrong over those who are (or who appear to be) weak and right. In George W. Bush, we had the perfect example of strong-and-wrong, so it’s clear the continuing weakness of the Democratic Party on national security had a lot to do with his re-election.

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