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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Democrats and National Security

It’s obvious that the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq was a big factor in the Democratic midterm victory (though surprisingly, the national exit polls placed Iraq fourth in the ranks of “most important issues,” after corruption, the war on terrorism, and the economy). And in the wake of the victory, I can’t blame the most avid antiwar Democrats for crowing about the steady trend of public opinion in the direction of a rejection of the war as a bad idea from the beginning.But given the likely long-range prominence of national security in American politics, and the persistent doubts of many voters about Democratic credibility on national security (which mattered a lot in 2004, and might have mattered this year if Bush and company had not discredited themselves so thoroughly), it’s important for Democrats to be clear-eyed about the challenges they face. That’s why I was troubled by a TPMCafe post by the usually excellent Greg Sargent the other day that suggested the intra-party divide on national security was between those who (correctly) wanted to be loud and proud in attacking the administration on every front, and those who (incorrectly) wanted to stay silent and fight out the election on domestic issues. Greg’s right that some Democrats have habitually wanted to ignore national security issues and some habitually have objected (going all the way back to the 1970s), but this is a divide that cuts across the left-right, pro-war anti-war differences of opinion. The apotheosis of the change-the-subject approach was in the last midterm elections, those in 2002, and it was promoted and opposed by Democrats on both sides of the decision to invade Iraq (the DLC, to cite one example, ranted against the concede-national-security point of view relentlessly). Indeed, this was a debate that never ended within the Kerry general election campaign in 2004.Within the now-triumphant don’t-ignore-national-security camp among Democrats, a secondary argument has been, as Greg briefly discusses, whether to attack the Bush administration and the GOP for its incompetence on Iraq, or for its basic decision to go after Saddam Hussein. I strongly suspect a lot of voters would consider this a theoretical and backward-looking dispute that is irrelevant to the basic judgment that Bush and company lied and bullied their way into a war they didn’t know how to win. And that’s why Democrats were almost certainly smart to frame their party message on Iraq almost exactly that way. Going forward, perhaps the most significant divide among Democrats on national security is between those who view the Iraq war, however it ends, as a distraction from the broader fight against (substitute your favorite terms) jihadist terrorism, and those who think that broader war is a chimera or a mistake as well. The latter camp (which extends over into the GOP “realist” ranks) implicitly agrees with Bush, Cheney and the neocons that you can’t separate Iraq from the U.S. reaction to 9/11; the failure of the former indicates a basic misconception of the latter. I don’t think this represents anything like a majority of antiwar Democrats, but it’s a debate that needs to be flushed out in the open, and resolved before 2008.

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