The Fire This Time
An Open Letter to the Democratic party.


William J. Bennett

As your party prepares to begin its convention in Boston, you should be mindful of the perspective and feeling of many former Democrats, Independents, and undecideds–about your general state of anger and fury. Former President Bill Clinton has recently argued that the prosecutions against him when he was president resulted from a Republican sentiment that his 1992 election was a violation of the natural order: “They really believed, when I won, it interrupted the natural order of things.” Clinton is wrong–I knew many Republicans who voted for Clinton in 1992, thinking his welfare promises and his foreign-policy statements (from Iraq to Israel to China) were more conservative than then-President George H. W. Bush’s. Indeed, several personnel at conservative think tanks even celebrated the 1992 defeat of then-President Bush.

But, while Clinton is wrong about the Republican feelings of his presidency (and the reasons for the manifold investigations), he projected something quite right about your current feelings about President George W. Bush. You have propounded the thesis that this presidency is illegitimate, that this presidency has interrupted a natural order–and the way you are presently campaigning is unhealthy for our politics and polity.

Last Sunday, the New York Times Book Review proffered advice to you from Democratic stalwarts such as Mario Cuomo, Gary Hart, and George McGovern. They have a great degree of credibility because they have maintained their membership in your party. I was a Democrat for 22 years of my adult life and left the party–but I believe I speak for many other ex-Democrats in the advice I would like to share with you.

Shortly after President Bush’s inauguration, the campaign to delegitimize President Bush’s presidency began: Anti-Bush bumper-stickers such as “Hail to the Thief” were in proliferation. In May of 2001, several newspapers seemingly put this issue to rest. The USA Today wrote: “George W. Bush would have won a hand count of Florida’s disputed ballots if the standard advocated by Al Gore had been used, the first full study of the ballots reveals. Bush would have won by 1,665 votes–more than triple his official 537-vote margin–if every dimple, hanging chad and mark on the ballots had been counted as votes, a USA Today/Miami Herald/Knight Ridder study shows.” Analyses by the New York Times and other news organizations reached similar conclusions. We soon got past the Florida contretemps, and then an unprecedented attack on 9/11/01 shook our nation to its core. We licked our wounds, girded our loins, and united as a nation. And then, in an effort to ensure neither we nor our allies would be attacked again, President Bush took a forward-looking stance on the war: we would disrupt and end tyrant states and terrorist havens before they could gain the footing and resources to attack us first.

After we began the liberation of Iraq, just as you were winding up for November 2004, the consensus over our national and international war efforts unwound. The personal attacks began anew, the partisanship swung far-left, bumper stickers reading “Re-Defeat Bush” appeared, and rather than propose a serious and legitimate alternative way of governing or waging the war against terrorism, you sprung serious doubt about your seriousness in the most perilous time facing this nation, perhaps since the Civil War. It is not heat you turned up in your campaign to end the Bush presidency, it is fiery hate.

Do not take my word alone. Writing in late 2003–before he joined the John Kerry campaign–Democratic pollster Mark Mellman wrote, “Democrats hate George Bush….The level of animosity Bush arouses in Democrats appears unprecedented.” More recently, the old-style liberal columnist Jack Germond said that Democrats are “just crazed to get Bush out of there.”

The “craze” started at the top and moved down the ranks. We have heard the following from the mainstay of your leadership: In 2003, then presumptive Democratic nominee, Howard Dean (number one in the Democratic polls, number one in fundraising), opined on national radio that President Bush “was warned ahead of time” about 9/11. Asked to clarify that speculation on national television, Dean admitted he didn’t believe this to be the case but “we don’t know and it would be nice to know.”

Last December, journalist Mort Kondracke reported that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (now a John Kerry advisor) speculated to him that President Bush might know the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and “will bring him out before the election.”

Former Vice President, and 2000 Democratic candidate for President, Al Gore has been pounding the drums of hate and resentment repeatedly for some time now. In 2002, at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Al Gore compared President Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption to the foreign policy of the USSR, putting our actions to liberate Iraq on par with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, analogizing President Bush to Leonid Brezhnev. Not satisfied that his comparison sufficiently permeated the national conscience, just last month Al Gore compared President Bush to Adolf Hitler: “The Administration works closely with a network of rapid response digital Brown Shirts who work to pressure reporters and their editors for undermining support for our troops.”

Not to be outdone by these Democratic stalwarts, John Kerry went to Radio City Music Hall this month, one day after stating that his campaign was “going to restore to America the values that belong to Americans.” At Radio City, Kerry and John Edwards gave us a preview of their values as they sat through a fundraiser for their campaign where Hollywood stars and pop-musicians called President Bush “a liar,” “a cheap thug,” and where Whoopi Goldberg delivered a routine about President Bush that was described as “an X-rated rant full of sexual innuendos.” At the conclusion of the fundraiser, John Kerry said, “every single performer” has “conveyed to you the heart and soul of our country.”

This is not the Democratic party of my youth–nor is it the party I left in 1986. You have a better legacy than this. It does not begin with George McGovern who has been trotted back out this campaign season, it may, however, have ended with the other candidate who lost to Richard Nixon in a much closer race: Hubert Humphrey. He, a happy political warrior, did not traffic in hate, nor did he flirt with isolationism and appeasement of dictators abroad–he understood the importance of the international threat against democracy and the need to fight it, while at the same time providing a reasoned yet zealous case for domestic liberalism at home. With his demise and McGovern’s ascendancy, you lost many supporters because of your policies in the 1970s and 1980s. I finally left when you refused to fund the insurgents in Nicaragua, then a Soviet satellite. Today, in large part due to the pressure President Ronald Reagan applied there (what John Kerry recently hailed as his fight against “an illegal war in Central America”), Nicaragua is rated above the median index of freedom by Freedom House, above such democratic examples as Turkey.

Another Democrat you lost, Jeane Kirkpatrick, summed up your once-proud legacy as a party led by people who were “not afraid to be resolute nor ashamed to speak of America as a great nation. They didn’t doubt that we must be strong enough to protect ourselves and to help others. They didn’t imagine that America should depend for its very survival on the promises of its adversaries. They happily assumed the responsibilities of freedom.”

As you prepare for your convention in Boston, I hope you will look back on your proud legacy that boasts such courageous and bold leaders as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy and that you will turn away from the hate filled neo-isolationism of those who speak on your behalf today. President Clinton wrote an instructive editorial in the Washington Post this past spring that you should take to heart. Writing of his failure to act on the grave human-rights abuses that took place in Rwanda, Clinton lamented that “We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become a safe haven for the killers.” Clinton continued that his hope was that “the international community will continue to learn from our mistakes in Rwanda in 1994. We need to improve our intelligence-gathering capabilities, increase the speed with which international intervention can be undertaken and muster the global political will required to respond to the threat of genocide wherever it may occur.”

As you continue your efforts to defeat President Bush, I hope you will not abandon your legacy nor President Clinton’s remorse. Today we are learning about the CIA’s failures to get the facts right about Iraq’s WMD program. But those failures do not belong to President Bush alone–and before you allow the various reports coming out to become your next platform of attack, take a moment and ask yourselves why former Kerry advisor Sandy Berger said the following in 1998: “He [Hussein] will use those weapons of mass destruction again, as he has ten times since 1983.” Ask yourselves why Kerry adviser Madeleine Albright said the following at the same forum: “Iraq is a long way from Ohio, but what happens there matters a great deal here. For the risks that the leaders of a rogue state will use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons against us or our allies is the greatest security threat we face.” Ask yourselves why President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 that made it our foreign policy to change the regime in Iraq.

The liberation of Iraq was a positive good, with or without WMDs–a haven for terrorists is now a genesis of democracy; the mass graves where tens of thousands were buried are being emptied rather than filled; one of the worst human-rights violators in the world is now out of power–no longer able to torture, no longer able to invade neighbors, no longer able to threaten the world’s oil supply, no longer able to subsidize homicide bombers in Israel.

You have a unique and proper role to play this year. Partisan politics is a good thing–our parties, after all, were designed in part to limit the dangers of “faction” in our country. While I do not deny your right to say what you have said in the recent past, I deny the rightness in what you have said and why you have said it. It has increased the factionalism our parties were meant to tame. We have a robust First Amendment in this country, as well we should. But, like any freedom, its abuse can be corrupting. James Madison warned, “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire.” Do not, in your campaign, so diminish the importance of America’s role abroad with hate-filled rhetoric that you end up proving Thomas Jefferson wrong when he said, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” Frankly, today–as you fan the flames of resentment–you are putting into question your own principles, principles that should transcend partisan politics.

The day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt spoke to a joint session of Congress and said, “[W]e will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.” In short order, we took on Germany, a country that did not attack us and had less to do with the attack on Pearl Harbor than al Qaeda had to do with Iraq. Thomas Friedman has provided the post-9/11 dictum that President Roosevelt understood intuitively: if you don’t visit a bad neighborhood, the bad neighborhood will visit you. Iraq was a bad neighborhood; it is a far better place now–just ask the Iraqis. Our “greatest generation” liberated Germany; another great generation has liberated Iraq.

Go back to your roots as you plan your speeches for Boston, as you prepare your campaign to replace President Bush. Re-embrace your concern for human rights abroad with your willingness to use force to defend those rights. Propose alternative foreign-policy strategies that can build off of our successes in Iraq and Afghanistan–and cease labeling those successes as failures. Restore the proper and respectful role of your partisan duties with legitimate differences of opinion that do not give doubts as to your principles. In the end, let ‘er rip, but do not–for the sake of your party, for the sake of your country–abuse your partisan role to further divide our nation, or our reputation abroad. Up until now, your demagoguery has put a primacy on the fanning of flames rather than the light a responsible use of heat should shed. Boston, the site of so much good from our country’s early history, can be the site of you reclaiming so much good from your party’s past. Now is the time for your new revolution; do not–in your heated passion–squander this moment.

William J. Bennett is the host of the nationally syndicated radio show, Bill Bennett’s Morning in America, and the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute.