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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Progressive Narrative or a Hegemonic National Greatness Narrative?

By David Rieff
It is a measure of just how far to the right the country has swung that the authors of the “Progressive Battle Plan for National Security” can on the one hand insist that “we are Democrats because we are inspired by the values of the left” and on the other name their group after President Truman–a man who can be described as a leftist only if graded on a curve of mainstream American politicians of the Cold War era. Yes, President Truman was to Richard Nixon’s left, but what of it? It reminds me of the old English comedy routine in which three Englishman try to explain American politics to a fourth who is about to travel there. “You have the Republican Party,” one of them says, “which is the equivalent of our Conservative Party, and you have the Democratic Party…which is the equivalent of our Conservative Party.”
I am certainly not competent to judge what the most effective durable strategy is for Democratic Party victories, and I defer to the Truman Project writers on the matter. But what I do know is that calling Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and, of course, Harry Truman men of the left is to perpetrate a falsehood. Roosevelt, at least, instituted at least some programs that could be described as left of center (though certainly not leftist), even if at least arguably his motivation was at least in part to stave off the demands of the actual American left. In the case of Truman and Kennedy, however, the historical record is one of ‘national greatness’ Cold War Democrats whose bedrock assumptions were that the world was best served when ‘led’ by the United States of America. John Kennedy, as John Judis reminds us in his post, ran to the right of Richard Nixon on national security issues. As for President Truman, well, here I have a question: does the name Nagasaki ring a bell?
To me, it is extraordinary (well, grotesque if I am being honest) that one could name a foreign policy group after the only political leader ever to authorize the use of the atomic bomb. And the inappropriateness and moral deafness inherent in such a decision is compounded by the authors’ reference to an Iran that threatens “to destroy millions of lives in a war or a nuclear accident” should it acquire atomic bombs. All the warranted denunciations of the barbarity of the Iranian regime cannot change the fact that we are in fact the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons.
My suspicion is that these remarks will make little sense to the authors of the paper. A world in which a group of like-minded Democratic Party foreign policy experts can call their blog ‘Democracy Arsenal’ in the apparent belief this only has echoes of FDR’s famous speech and not, precisely, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of the overthrow of Mossadegh and Arbenz, and the war in Vietnam that the Republican Eisenhower warned against and the (leftist?!) Kennedy embroiled us in, is one in which the sensibilities, historical memories, and opinions of much of the rest of the world–one might even say, the decent opinion of mankind–apparently count for very little.
In all candor, I cannot see what differentiates the justifications for the so-called Global War on Terrorism put forward by the authors of this ‘progressive’ [sic] battle plan from that regularly advanced by the Bush Administration. The President has himself repeatedly emphasized all the issues that supposedly would distinguish a Democratic Party approach to fighting the jihadis from the insistence that the struggle is one for hearts and minds within Islam, to the moral obligation to combat the oppression of women, to the need to champion values of “freedom, tolerance, and respect for others.” It is one thing to claim that the Bush Administration has acted incompetently; that can be justified. But it is simply false to claim that the Administration has not, from the invasion of Afghanistan forward, emphasized all these points. Again, I am not competent to speak as a political strategist, but it seems to me that commonsense would suggest that the anxieties the American public apparently feels over the Democratic Party’s national security bona fides will not be assuaged by repeating the White House’s talking points of the past six years.
Rather than accept the authors’ contention that the problem “is that Republicans have controlled the national security narrative,” surely a strong case can be made that in the American mainstream there is only one national security narrative–the national greatness narrative. To me the authors’ paper buttresses such a contention rather than dispelling it. And indeed, an objective reading of the Cold War suggests that, apart from a diminishing isolationist rump within the Republican Party, the narrative of Harry Truman was not that different from that of Dwight Eisenhower, just as the narrative of John
Kennedy was not that different from that of Richard Nixon. Were this not the case, why has it been a cliché for decades that, during the Cold War at least, partisan politics stopped at the water’s edge?
In my view, what has really happened is that the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan, and, even more successfully, under George W. Bush succeeded in writing the Democratic Party out of this bipartisan narrative–not least by appealing, just as the authors of the paper do, to Harry Truman. Republican support for Senator Lieberman is another emblem of this narrative in which Democrats have strayed from this consensus and no longer know how to protect the country.
In all candor, I do not really see all that much light between the Republican position and the position the Truman Project advocates here. That does not make the authors wrong, but it does call into question their contention that their ‘Stand Principled’ position can be the silver bullet Democrats have been searching for. An equally important practical difficulty with the paper is its persistent implication that Democrats have principles and Republicans don’t. The Islamists, the authors write, “refuse to tolerate the very diversity of opinion that makes us Democrats and Americans.” I hold no brief for the Republican Party but this is pure demagoguery. And it will convince no one, reassure no one, and do nothing to usher in a new period of Democratic Party success.

David Rieff is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of seven books including, most recently, At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention..

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