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Bad on Race, Worse on National Security By: Peter Beinart
Wall Street Journal | Tuesday, February 25, 2003

WASHINGTON -- In these early days of the 2004 campaign, one of the media's favorite parlor games is: Who will be the Democratic John McCain? It's the right question, but not for the reasons the press typically assumes. In common parlance, being like Mr. McCain means being authentic and independent, having a gripping life story, and coming from nowhere to shock the political establishment. Which Democratic candidate wouldn't want that appellation attached to him?

But the truth about the 2000 McCain campaign, as Republicans probably remember better than Democrats, isn't quite so benign. Mr. McCain's insurgency wasn't based simply on a compelling persona; it was based on a frontal assault on the principles of the post-Gingrich GOP. With his support for campaign-finance reform Mr. McCain attacked the Republican Party's alliance with K Street; with his denunciation of George W. Bush's proposed tax cut he took aim at supply-side economics; and with his condemnation of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, he took on the Christian Right. It was an ideological kamikaze mission, an attempt, as people like William Kristol understood at the time, to blow up the post-cold war GOP and begin anew.

Not surprisingly, Mr. McCain lost. But his overwhelming support among independents, and Al Gore's subsequent victory in the popular vote, suggest that a Republican Party built upon the twin pillars of corporate special-interest and evangelical moralism did indeed have feet of clay. I suspect that had 9/11 not come along, and re-established Republicans as the hawkish party in an era dominated by national security, Mr. McCain's insurgency might eventually have transformed the GOP.

So yes, the Democrats do need a John McCain. But not in the easy sense of a straight-shooter or a war hero. They need someone to incite a rebellion against the party's base, someone who will risk pariah status to lay the groundwork for the long-term ideological reconstruction of
the Democratic Party.

Today's Democrats are plagued by two problems: a grassroots at odds with most of the country on national security, and a racial demagogue about to ascend to party leadership. The activists in the Democratic Party -- the people who stuff envelopes, attend caucuses and breathe life into presidential candidacies -- loathe the coming war with Iraq. Their natural suspicion of American military power, already far greater than the public's as a whole, has been exacerbated by deep mistrust of the Bush administration and horror at the explosion of anti-Americanism around the world.

As political reporters are increasingly finding out, the Democratic base is as hostile to this war as Republicans were to Bill Clinton during the struggle over impeachment. Repeatedly faced with anti-war crowds, ostensibly pro-war Democratic candidates are naturally tempted either to denounce the Bush administration for its unilateralism, or avoid discussing foreign policy altogether. But neither of those tacks will help build the national-security credibility Democrats so badly need. An insurgent Democrat would confront the party's dovish base with an unapologetic defense of war, with or without the U.N. And use that as the basis for a hawkish critique of the Bush administration for its coddling of Syria and Saudi Arabia, it's failure to move aggressively to safeguard nuclear materials around the world, and it's disastrous reliance on local proxies during the critical battles in Afghanistan last winter.

But the Democrats' problem is not confined to the war. Bill Clinton, aided by the economic prosperity he ushered in, was able to appeal to African-Americans in universal, race-neutral terms. But none of the legitimate Democratic candidates have thus far shown that ability. And the party has failed to groom nationally prominent black politicians.

Into the resulting vacuum has walked Al Sharpton, a man who specializes in racial political extortion. The serious candidates hope that by embracing Mr. Sharpton -- Messrs. Lieberman, Kerry and Dean have each joked about being his running mate -- they can avoid being called racist. But the consequences for the eventual nominee, and for the party itself, could be enormous. If Mr. Sharpton wins a block of delegates, and the eventual nominee has to publicly negotiate for his support in the days leading up to the convention, that nominee will discredit himself in the eyes of the millions of Americans who see Mr. Sharpton, rightly, as a charlatan. A Sharpton prime-time convention speech would be the Democratic equivalent of Pat Buchanan's speech to the GOP faithful in Houston in 1992. And his emergence as the most powerful black leader in the Democratic Party would be politically and morally corrosive to the party for years to come.

Just as John McCain compared Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell to Al Sharpton in 2000, a true Democratic insurgent should compare Mr. Sharpton to Messrs. Robertson and Falwell. The outcry in the party would be deafening, just as it would be if a Democratic candidate truly challenged the near-pacifism that permeates the Democratic grassroots. And that candidate would almost certainly lose the nomination.

But in so doing, he could provide a rallying cry for that large and quiet contingent of Democrats who don't want to surrender the party to race-baiters and ultra-doves. And when the Democrats lose the 2004 election -- as they surely will if they pander to Mr. Sharpton and the anti-war base -- it is that McCain-like insurgency that could inherit a party finally forced to recognize that it is deep in the wilderness.

Before the Democrats can truly challenge the GOP, they have to challenge themselves.

Peter Beinart is an editor of The New Republic.

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