Evan Bayh, the moderate Democratic senator from Indiana, speaking truth to those out of power, said it directly: "Unless the American people know that we will be good stewards of the nation's security, they're unlikely to trust us with anything else."
The trouble is "anything else" is all that many Democrats care about – anything else, that is, but defending the nation. For much of the reigning Democratic elite, national defense is beneath them - unintellectual, the stuff of flag wavers, Cold Warriors and Wal-Mart shoppers unschooled in finer things, like multiculturalism. If one hasn't had a jihadist to dinner, what is one?
"Many Americans wonder," Senator Bayh says, "if we're willing to use force to defend the country even under the most compelling of circumstances. The majority of Democrats would answer that question, yes, there is a right place and a right time. We don't get to have that discussion because many people don't think we have the backbone."
The fact is, though, that this isn't the first time Democrats have been in this fix. And how they responded before gives good guidance on what they must do now.
Consider this statement: "We recognize Hitlerite methods when we see them in our own land." Sound familiar? Was it uttered by that cinema artist, Michael Moore? Oliver Stone? Cynthia McKinney? No, the year was 1948, and the speaker was a former vice president of the United States, Henry Wallace.
Wallace was a leftist who'd been elected vice president in 1940, and served during Franklin Roosevelt's third term. But as the 1944 election approached, Democratic leaders replaced him on the ticket with Harry S. Truman - in part because they knew Roosevelt was dying, and feared letting Wallace's leftist views into the White House if Wallace succeeded FDR.
So it was Harry Truman who became president when Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. In 1948, when Truman sought election in his own right, Wallace bolted the Democratic Party and ran as the candidate of the Progressive Party, uttering that line about "Hitlerite methods." He said it in response to what he called Truman's "reactionary war policy," meaning resistance to Soviet expansion. He also blamed Truman for the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia. See, when the enemy succeeds, it's our fault. Sound even more familiar?
And in a chilling preview that mirrors what some leftists say now, Wallace predicted that Truman's policies would see American soldiers "lying in their Artic suits in the Russian snow."
What was remarkable, though, was the reaction of Democrats to their one-time vice president. Did they pander to him? Did they pledge to "respect" his views if he returned to the Democratic fold? Hell, no. They gave it to Wallace with both barrels blazing. Democrats realized then what Democrats today don't – that a party can be a big tent, but not an infinite tent. And leading the charge was Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR's widow, and no secret right-winger.
"When Mr. Wallace," she wrote in the Democratic Digest of April, 1948, "assumes that by changing certain of our policies until we resemble Mr. Chamberlain, hat in hand, approaching Hitler, we will have the results which he calls 'peace and abundance,' I'm afraid he is doing more wishful thinking than realistic facing of facts."
And, in describing Communists, she uttered words unthinkable to today's Democratic left: "They understand strength, not weakness."
Others joined her. Leading Democrats signed a statement asking liberals to vote for Truman, not Wallace, because the group Wallace headed "has lined up unashamedly with the forces of Soviet totalitarianism."
Truman faced not only the defection of the so-called "progressives" in 1948, but the departure of the Dixiecrats, who hated the Democratic Party's embrace of civil rights. He campaigned with a reduced party, and won. Americans admired his refusal to bow down to the extremists, left or right.
What does that teach Democrats of today?
Today's Democratic Party must take a firm pro-defense stand, and bluntly say to its leftist fringe, "Love it or leave it." If people threaten to quit, bid them goodbye with an autographed photo of Henry Wallace. The sight of the "make love, not war" crowd streaming out would be the best publicity the party could have, a Sister Souljah moment times a thousand.
For every anti-defense radical who sails off, many more in the American middle will come in. As Evan Bayh said, unless Democrats are trusted on defense, they're not going to be trusted on anything else.
No party welcomes splits, but sometimes they're needed to save the party itself. Do a Truman, Democrats! The old guy from Missouri will be right behind you, cheering you on, cuss words and all.