Dems’ Dilemma
Papering over the radical/moderate cleavage.


James S. Robbins

The Democrats are on the horns of a dilemma. The war on terrorism, particularly the campaign in Iraq, is one of the most passionate issues on the American left. Yet while generating strident opinions among those who consider Michael Moore to be the country’s leading liberal intellectual (and who am I to argue with that?), Middle America still gives George Bush high marks for his conduct of the war. So Kerry’s supporters have to find a way to triangulate between the two and alienate neither.

Within the party, the Democrats are papering over the cleavage. The Democratic platform asserts, “People of good will disagree about whether America should have gone to war in Iraq.” The party leadership hopes that they will have the decency to disagree silently. They are trying very hard to ignore the 600-lb. gorilla in the room, fearing that should the issue flare up it will send the genuine antiwar voters to their more natural candidate, Ralph Nader.

Kerry is also avoiding controversy when it comes to defeating al Qaeda. He promised earlier in the day that he would “run a war that’s more thoughtful and more effective”–not exactly a stirring call to arms. New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez asserted that John Kerry has “a plan to win the war on terror,” and proceeded to list what sounded very much like the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission report. Among the revolutionary and innovative counter-terrorism techniques Kerry is proposing is that we identify, disrupt, and eliminate terror networks. Apart from simply begging the question, isn’t that what the Bush team has been up to for the past three years? It is hard to distinguish the Democratic rhetoric from the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, except that the Bush plan is much more specific. With respect to operational approaches to fighting terrorism, Kerry has nothing new to say.

Yet the Democrats have settled on two national-security themes that they hope will appeal to both their moderate and radical wings. The first is wartime leadership, which they have recast as a character issue. It can be summed up as “Bush lied!” Former president Jimmy Carter alluded to this by noting that when he was a submariner under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower (both of whom “showed up” when called to duty, he noted), he was confident they would not mislead him or send him to fight a war not in our national interest.

It was strange to see Carter as the principle foreign- and defense-policy speaker for the convention’s opening night. Carter’s anemic record defending America’s interests abroad was one of the contributing factors to his loss to Ronald Reagan. And it was something of a time warp to hear Carter say that “today, our dominant international challenge is to restore the greatness of America.” It was like the 1980 election all over again, but this time Carter was making one of Reagan’s speeches. I doubt that America has forgotten the depths to which this country sank in the Carter era, and I cannot see how associating Kerry’s foreign policy with Carter will help convey the requisite impression of strength. Case in point: At the end of the DNC-sponsored tribute film to Carter, the former president was shown blowing kisses. The ends of similar Reagan tributes usually show him saluting. To me this sums up the distinct national-security approaches of the two administrations, and the two parties generally.

Carter, like most other speakers, did not refer to Bush by name, but only through heavy and pointed allusion. By way of contrast to the deceptive incumbent, John Kerry was presented as a principled leader and courageous war fighter, who in Vietnam was “known for taking the fight to the enemy.” Reverend David Alston, who served with Kerry on PCF-94, gave an effective hagiographic version of their experiences together, and other speakers referred to Kerry’s service throughout. This led to a rather bizarre moment when Bill Clinton, characterizing Kerry’s (eventual) volunteering to go to war, said, “Send me!”–probably the only time Clinton ever placed those words in such close proximity to Vietnam.

The second theme was global cooperation, which is half of the Kerry campaign’s uninspiring slogan, “Strong at Home, Respected in the World.” This is a safe issue even among the anti-war crowd, who one suspects would just as soon see the U.N. managing U.S. foreign policy. Most speakers praised John Kerry’s unparalleled ability to reach out to foreign leaders and condemned the straw man of President Bush’s foreign-policy unilateralism. Bob Menendez said alliances were useful because “you get a lot more firepower when you can organize a posse.” That’s kind of wild-west imagery that, if used by Bush, would be greeted with howls from the left. To hear the Democrats fuss you would think the United States has no allies whatsoever in the war on terrorism, instead of the 70 nations now part of the global Coalition. (Note that the “Allies” in World War II were comprised of 44 countries.)

The Dems also engaged in some historical revisionism. Carter mentioned that before Bush took office, the United States had a reputation “as the world’s most admired champion of freedom and justice.” It all ended after a few months of Bush’s “extremism.” (The solution? According to Carter, it’s making human rights central to our foreign policy–you have to admire his consistency.) One might ask when exactly it was that the United States was universally beloved and admired, particularly in the Arab world after the foundation of the state of Israel. Former president Bill Clinton claimed that the U.S. was widely respected during his years in office, except, one might guess, by the terrorists who periodically attacked us. When Hillary Clinton described those days as “eight years of peace,” I could not help thinking that this was exactly the problem. The Clintons never knew we were at war.

There was one moment of genuine drama. Haleema Salie, a member of the Democratic party platform committee and a Muslim American from Sri Lanka who lost her daughter and son-in-law on American Flight 11, gave an emotional tribute to the 9/11 victims, followed by solo violinist Gabe Lefkowitz playing “Amazing Grace.” (One suspects that having an apparently Jewish violinist following a Muslim speaker was intentional symbolism of some kind.) The lights in the Fleet Center dimmed. Conventioneers raised standard-issue lights on cue. Cameras caught close-ups of people weeping. It was a moving scene. But sanity check–isn’t this the same group of people who threw fits when George Bush made incidental use of 9/11 imagery in a campaign commercial? Here they were explicitly invoking the tragedy in the opening three hours of their week-long Kerry advertisement. The Democratic spin was that this part of the program was non-partisan, even non-political–simply a human tribute to a tragedy that affected every American. A flimsy explanation, but let’s take it at face value.

Enter Hillary Clinton. If 9/11 had not been politicized before she appeared on stage, the junior senator from New York made certain that it would be. Perhaps the schedulers followed Ms. Salie’s address with the Reverend Alston’s sonorous tribute to John Kerry the riverine warrior to imply that Kerry was the kind of leader we need in a dangerous world where things like 9/11 happen. Hillary, however, not known for subtlety, made the link explicit. In her clipped, school-marmish style, she made certain everybody got the point:

I, like all of you, just heard the moving testimonials about the horrors of September the 11th and the extraordinary witnessing by Reverend Alston concerning his lieutenant, John Kerry. I don’t know how any American could hear the Reverend Alston and not know John Kerry is the man we need to be our president and commander-in-chief.

She kept the ball rolling by getting into her personal experiences at Ground Zero, and ad-libbing about the importance of the 9/11 Commission and the role of the (liberal) families of the victims in bringing it about.

The politicization of our national tragedy became even more acute when Bill Clinton, in an animated and effective speech certain to make John Kerry look like a zombie by comparison, said that President Bush was seeking to cut funding for 700 New York City police “who put their lives on the line on 9/11.” This is simply gross exploitation. The press may give Clinton a pass on this, along with the many distortions in his speech, but I thought it was grotesque, albeit typical.

In any case, the Republicans should not feel shy about invoking 9/11. The Democrats have demonstrated that they will use it for political gain. All the president has to do is tell the truth about his unifying leadership on that day and in the weeks and months that followed. These are facts of history that the American people should be reminded of, especially since the Democrats are striving mightily to see them erased from the collective consciousness.