Politics & Policy

Dem Crackup

We're looking at another liberal crackup.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the April 7, 2003, issue of National Review.

Scoop Jackson is dead. So is the hawkish wing of the Democratic party that the late senator once led. Its absence could make the Democrats unelectable for years.

It’s true, of course, that many Democrats in Congress voted for the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Democrats who want to be president remember 1992, when opponents of the first Gulf War were considered ineligible for the national ticket. It’s also true that a few liberal intellectuals, notably the editors of The New Republic, support regime change. But these intellectuals are men without a country. They don’t appear to have any influence with liberal voters.

A January Washington Post poll found 57 percent of the public supporting military action — but also found 57 percent of Democrats opposing it. Republican pollster Scott Rasmussen found that 49 percent of self-identified “liberal Democrats” thought President Bush would be to blame if a war started, while only 34 percent would blame Saddam Hussein. The Left’s greatest passions today appear to be, first, hatred of Bush and, second, opposition to what it regards as Bush’s war. Hostility to Bush on the left is at least as intense as hostility to Clinton was on the right.

Many Democrats, in Washington and elsewhere, seem convinced that “General Rove” is calling the shots on the Mideast. Even pro-war Democrats think that the Bush administration orchestrated the Iraq debate in time for the 2002 elections. (Never mind that it was the Democrats themselves who had been calling for a debate during the summer of 2002.)

Antiwar liberals have gone much deeper into conspiracy theory. Unable to credit Bush’s stated justifications for military action, they assume that he must really be acting at the behest of oil companies, or of Israel. Chris Matthews describes the war as a conspiracy of “neoconservatives.” Maureen Dowd claims that the administration has all along sought to destroy America’s traditional alliances; its diplomacy “was never meant to succeed.” Dowd is a reliable conduit of conventional liberal wisdom. Sometimes she is incoherent, often she is frivolous, but until now she has not been a crackpot.

It should be no surprise that in some cases — most notoriously that of Democratic congressman Jim Moran — this penchant for conspiracy theory has led where it always seems to lead: to anti-Semitism.

There may be a division of opinion among Democrats. But in this fevered environment, there is only one constituency among them: the antiwar constituency. In the Democratic presidential primaries, it’s the doves, not the hawks, who are making the war an issue. Howard Dean is blasting the other candidates for having supported Bush’s war resolution. Dean’s willingness to make antiwar arguments has won him some dedicated supporters, and some great press for being plainspoken. He knows that opposition to the war alone won’t bring him the nomination. But it could help him win the famously dove-dominated Iowa caucuses, setting up the former Vermont governor for a favorite-son win in New Hampshire.

The hawks, meanwhile, have conspicuously avoided taking on the peaceniks. None of the primary candidates is willing to be Tony Blair.

John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman are taking flak over their pro-war vote, and not just from Dean. At the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee, Gephardt’s speech was greeted by a cry of “Shame!” from an antiwar audience member. Lieberman found himself in a similar situation in Manchester, N.H., as did Edwards in Los Angeles.

Gephardt may be the saddest case. For two decades, he has been as prominent a spokesman for the labor Left as anyone in American politics. He’s still carrying the torch today, calling for a global minimum wage. But the Left is largely ignoring him in favor of Dean and even the hopeless Dennis Kucinich, in large part because Gephardt has been hawkish. When Gephardt started his career, organized labor could be counted on to support an aggressively anti-totalitarian foreign policy. But labor is no longer dominated by culturally conservative, private-sector hardhats. The AFL-CIO came out against a war in Iraq. Gerald McEntee, the leader of the powerful union of state and local government workers, has warned the pro-war Democratic presidential contenders that they’ll be punished for their stance.

Kerry has taken a “yes, but” position on the war. His supporters say that it’s nuanced, his detractors that it’s a straddle. Dean has gone after Kerry with special zeal, for several reasons: Kerry is widely regarded as the frontrunner, and thus as the man to beat; Dean and Kerry are fighting for some of the same ideological and geographic constituencies; the argument over the war helps Dean play up his reputation for sincerity and Kerry’s for phoniness. If you were a Democratic strategist trying to devise a position on the war that would be palatable both to the primary electorate and to voters at large, you would probably come up with Kerry’s message. But Kerry’s balancing act will work only if the war starts — and ends — very soon.

Presumably, the antiwar movement and its strength within the Democratic party will both decline dramatically as soon as the bombs start falling. A few Democrats will continue to denounce the war, including Kucinich and, probably, Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun. But most of them, probably including Dean, will muffle their criticism of the war itself while saying that Bush botched the diplomacy leading up to it and warning that his postwar plans will fail. (Some of Dean’s supporters may feel betrayed if he softens his antiwar line in this manner.)

If the war ends successfully, as most Democrats expect it to, the party will then want foreign-policy issues to go away. Democratic consultant Donna Brazile says, “Democrats want to talk about education, the economy. They want to talk about local issues. . . . It’s hard to conceive of a Democrat running a national campaign on national security because it just doesn’t resonate with our voters.”

Postwar Iraq will be messy enough that Democrats will be able to find things to criticize. They will have something to say when foreign policy comes up. A lot of smart Democrats genuinely believe that Bush is beatable in 2004. They also think, as Ed Kilgore of the Democratic Leadership Council puts it, that “this is an administration that is not very competent in foreign policy, that can hardly agree among themselves, let alone work with anybody else.”

But the Democrats’ critique, whatever its cogency, may fall on deaf ears. They have not spent the run-up to the war burnishing their national-security credentials. Given the party’s current drift, the public may just conclude that it is too weak on foreign policy to be trusted with power.

During the second half of the Cold War, the Democrats were the dovish party. That period included six presidential elections, of which the Democrats won only one. It took the substantial advantages of Watergate, stagflation, and the fall of Saigon to win the 1976 election — and even then, Jimmy Carter barely did it. The Democrats have to hope that the war on terrorism does not last as long as the Cold War. They have to hope, that is, that the war on terrorism is an episode and not a condition. But they have already misjudged the politics of this war once, badly, in the 2002 elections.

Democrats may think that nominating John Kerry, a decorated combat veteran, will insulate them from charges of weakness on foreign policy. But George McGovern had a sterling war record, and Republicans were still able to use his policy record to indict him as a pacifist. Georgia Democrat Max Cleland lost three limbs in Vietnam; his votes on homeland security still lost him his Senate seat in 2002.

Democrats should also consider the possibility that, fairly or not, they are going to be judged in part on the basis of the wackos in the streets (especially if they’re in the streets during the Democrats’ 2004 convention in Boston). Most House Democrats would not have behaved as Jim McDermott and David Bonior did in their mission to Baghdad last year. But they were still two Democrats talking about Iraq on TV, and they were not forcefully denounced by other Democrats. Just after the 2002 elections, a Gallup poll found that 64 percent of the public believed that Republicans were “tough enough” on terrorism. Only 34 percent thought the same was true of Democrats.

That perception of Democratic weakness on foreign policy could eventually affect public views of the party on other issues, just as the Democrats’ Cold War dovishness made them look softheaded, timorous, alienated from Middle America, and less than wholeheartedly patriotic in the 1970s and 1980s.

Only a few Democrats, like Texas House member Martin Frost, have worried in public about the party’s direction. Brazile, who considers herself more hawkish than the average Democrat, also thinks the party’s disengagement from national-security issues is a mistake. “The Democratic party has a lot of hawks but they’re often drowned out by the doves,” she says.

Brazile understands the pressures inside the party as well as anyone. She went on television recently and made comments supporting Bush’s efforts at the U.N. “I received hate calls,” she says. “People expect you to oppose the president. And I’m not running for anything!”

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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