Democrats seem completely incapable of alleviating the persistent public unease with which the voting public regards them on matters relating to national security and international relations. Thus last week, as they tried to produce something akin to the GOP’s 1994 “Contract with America,” they managed to come up with positions on everything from taxes to the minimum wage but somehow missed including anything at all about Iraq.
The failure to include anything coherent about so important an issue, along with an inability to present an articulate alternative to what they so loudly and persistently describe as the Bush administration’s failed strategy in Iraq and on the war on terror, plays right into the hands of Republicans working to reawaken and reemphasize the decades-long public fear that, when it comes to dealing with a dangerous world, Democrats just don’t get it.
John Podesta and other “progressive” leaders are working desperately to explain why Democratic candidates and their party don’t really need a position; all they need to do, he suggests, is to identify with the public frustration and desire to end the war as soon as possible. He describes the likelihood that Republicans will exploit this as the sort of “unfair attack” one should expect from the GOP.
Whether raising the issue of the Democratic failure to articulate a coherent alternative to the administration’s policy represents an “unfair attack” will be answered by voters this fall, but if history is any guide many voters will opt for Republican candidates on this issue alone, even though they aren’t very happy with the way things are going in Iraq.
What Podesta and his fellow liberals don’t get is that voters this fall won’t simply be “grading” the performance of the GOP but deciding a series of real-world contests pitting individual candidates and their views against each other. In such contests, candidates who support a date certain for withdrawal, minimize the dangers of abandoning the field in Iraq or dismiss the importance of engaging and defeating terrorists abroad are likely to find less support outside their base than they expect.
Smarter Democrats like Hillary Clinton get this and try almost desperately to sidestep the political trap likely to snare many Democrats. Their problem, however, is that a refusal to embrace the essentially anti-American rhetoric that has motivated activists within their party since the glory days of the anti-Vietnam movement puts them at risk with their own base voters. Indeed, the activists within today’s Democratic Party are as determined to purge folks like Joe Lieberman as their predecessors were to rid themselves of Humphrey and Jackson Democrats a few decades ago.
Like liberals of an earlier age, too many of today’s Democrats find themselves in an uneasy alliance with a fringe that considers the United States the cause of all that is wrong with the world. They may not be comfortable with people who suggest that we were somehow responsible for the terrorist attacks on our country or that al Qaeda would dry up and blow away if we’d just get out of the Middle East, but they’re stuck with them, and their pivotal position within the Democratic coalition makes it virtually impossible for more reasonable Democrats to come up with an articulate alternative to Bush’s prosecution of the war.
Moreover, many of those who advise Democratic candidates are urging them to focus on other issues while suggesting that Bush’s preoccupation with Iraq and the war on terror is simply a political ploy to detract attention from his failure on other issues they really care about. Thus economist turned guru Paul Krugman writes that “tough talk on national security and affirmations of personal faith won’t help: the other side will smear you anyway.”
Krugman is in essence urging Democrats to dismiss the war on terror as a minor issue when compared with what he sees as the GOP propensity to side with the “rich” and wage the sort of good old-fashioned class war he thinks they can win. This strategy ignores the fact that most Americans believe the war on terror is real and must be won.
They may not be satisfied with the way Bush is prosecuting it and they may be frustrated with how long it is likely to take to win, but they know at least that he shares their view that the world is a dangerous place and that terrorism must be defeated.
Given this simple truth, few of them are likely to turn to candidates who, while they may share their frustration, just don’t seem to get it.
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