A week or so ago, Matthew Yglesias argued that the 2002 and 2004 elections demonstrated that the liberal hawks’ strategy for the Democratic party doesn’t win elections. I suggested that the Democrats had not adopted a hawkish strategy so much as they had straddled, and that the straddle had been a failure. Yglesias responded, in a post I had not had a chance to look at until now.
“As for 2002, I think that’s just mistaken,” he writes. “I recall going door-to-door for Jeanne Shaheen and the volunteers being under instructions not to say anything critical of the Bush foreign policy. Instead, the idea was to take security off the table and run on prescription drugs.”
Here we come to the nub of our disagreement. I don’t see that as a liberal hawkishness. I don’t think it’s what Zell Miller or Joe Lieberman were doing in 2002. They were actively supporting a more aggressive war on terror, in some cases urging the president to take more action abroad than he had. What Yglesias is describing is a strategy of changing the subject because the politics of national security was too nerve-wracking. It was nerve-wracking because Democrats had to cater both to liberals and to the public, and they weren’t in sync. So the Democrats couldn’t adopt either a hawkish or dovish position, and instead tried to talk about something else. It wasn’t a compelling message in 2002. The same impulses have been worked out in different ways since then, to equally disappointing effect.