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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

What to Say versus What to Do

By John B. Judis
Let me make some brief comments on this paper from the Truman National Security Project:
1. I think the authors are absolutely right in defining the political question about foreign policy. Foreign policy only becomes an issue in national politics when Americans either feel their security threatened or when they think the government is wasting resources or lives on issues that don’t threaten our security. But to say this is implicitly to acknowledge two less pleasant facts about foreign policy and politics: first, that American voters decide foreign policy questions on what are sometimes narrow and unenlightened grounds, and second, that these choices don’t necessarily reflect what is best for them and the country. Good politics don’t always make good policy. There are two obvious examples, both from Democrats. In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt was forced by popular will to accede to isolationist sentiments that would hamper the American response to the war in Europe. In 1960, John F. Kennedy successfully ran to the right of Richard Nixon by decrying a non-existent missile gap and promising sterner action on Cuba. Kennedy’s positions in that election, while popular, would later get him and the country in a lot of trouble, and it would take him until his American University speech in 1963 to reverse course rhetorically from the framework of discourse that he established during the 1960 campaign.
2. Democrats face two different questions about foreign policy this year and in the future: first, what to do; and second, what to say we should do. They are not the same (see above). But one should have some relation to the other. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson had already pretty much decided to escalate the Vietnam War when he was telling voters he would not. That contradiction laid the basis for public disillusionment with government and hatred of Johnson himself by many voters who supported him because they thought that he (unlike Goldwater) would find a way to get the U.S. out of Vietnam.
What bothers me about this Truman statement is the absence of any discussion of what should be done. Should one assume that Democrats know what to do about Iran, or about extricating the US from Iraq, but simply face a problem of how to sell these policies to the American people? I don’t think that’s the case. If one reads, say, the Truman people’s statement about Iran in this light, it sounds particularly hollow. When candidate X is at the debate and is asked, “Well, it is clear you don’t like Iran having nuclear weapons, but what should the US actually do to prevent it?” the authors “stand principled” alternative doesn’t suggest any answer at all. Perhaps this is too harsh, but my feeling is that this is too much one of those Lakoffian exercises that reflect the policy elite’s preoccupation with marketing ideas that they don’t yet have.
3. My own feeling, too, about foreign policy questions is that Americans, and Democrats in particular, have to be careful at times not to subordinate their convictions of what the country should do to their wishes to be re-elected, be elected, or gain control of Congress. The 2002 election was a perfect example. There were a group of former Clintonites who were convinced that the nation should go to war against Iraq, but many Democrats on Capitol Hill, while thinking otherwise, hoped that the issue would go away. I was at one Democratic retreat in 2002 where I had to broach the issue myself, because the participants were utterly convinced that the election could be fought entirely on grounds of Enron and unemployment. I think in retrospect most Democrats would agree that it would have been better to go down fighting in 2002 (many lost anyway) than to have allowed the looming disaster in Iraq to be ignored. But we can’t know whether we have to make that kind of sacrificial choice until we know what we think should actually be done. I think that’s the prior question that needs to be addressed before we try to figure out how to sell our policies.

John B. Judis is a Senior Editor at The New Republic, a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

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