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Why the Democrats have a Hard Time Gaining Trust in Diplomacy and Security

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To the surprise—and dismay—of many foreign observers, the Democrats were unable to capitalize on what many regarded a disastrous foreign policy performance last November and oust Bush from office. Instead, Bush was reelected by a narrow, but nevertheless comfortable margin—and exit polls indicated that his steadfast leadership and credibility in fighting the war against terrorism helped put him over the top. If Democrats are to regain the White House in 2008 or thereafter, they will have to narrow the gap with Republicans on the crucial question of which party is better able to defend America’s interests overseas.

Of course, Democrats believed that their national security problem would finally be solved in 2004. They avoided nominating Howard Dean, whose denunciations of the Iraq War conjured up images of Democrats as the antiwar party, and nominated John Kerry instead. Kerry had voted to authorize the war, and his decorated combat service in Vietnam would surely insulate him from Republican criticisms that he was unfit to be commander in chief. With the Republicans’ traditional advantage on national security issues neutralized, Democrats thought, the national debate would shift to the terrain that favored them—domestic policy.

The election did not unfold as Democrats had hoped. Kerry’s vote to authorize the Iraq war became a handicap. If he believed Saddam had to go, how could he fault President Bush for going to war? If he really opposed the war, why hadn’t he voted against it? Even Kerry’s Vietnam service came under attack as Republican groups questioned whether he deserved his medals. By Election Day, polls showed Bush enjoyed a sizable advantage over Kerry on the question of who was best prepared to lead the country.

Kerry’s experience would be less interesting if it were unusual. But for recent Democratic presidential candidates it has been the norm. For three decades, they have suffered at the polls because too many voters see them as soft on national security. During those thirty years, they have won the White House only when foreign policy was not an issue or following a major scandal affecting the standing of the incumbent party.

Democrats were not always seen as soft on national security. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Democrats championed muscular internationalism. John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency in 1960 arguing that Dwight Eisenhower had been complacent in dealing with the Soviet threat. Kennedy vowed in his inaugural address to assert American power: The United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Lyndon Johnson fought a war he did not want because he accepted the domino theory. The failure to defend South Vietnam, he believed, would “give a big fat reward to aggression.”

The Vietnam War split the Democratic Party. By the late 1960s, most Democrats had abandoned the muscular internationalism that Kennedy had championed for a cooperative internationalism. They doubted the utility and morality of much of America’s engagement overseas. They wanted no more interventions in the Third World. The United States would instead work with other countries, emphasizing its soft economic and political power rather than its hard military power.

At times, this desire for a cooperative internationalism sounded like a euphemism for neo-isolationism. George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign slogan was “Come Home America.” Many Democrats wanted the United States to do just that. Most Americans did not, however, and Richard Nixon won a landslide victory

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Jimmy Carter won in 1976 because Americans had been sickened by Nixon’s abuse of power, not because they embraced the idea of a more moral, less interventionist foreign policy which Carter championed. After Iranian militants seized the American embassy in Teheran and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, cooperative internationalism looked naïve. Carter’s confession that the Soviet invasion had “made a more dramatic change in my opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office” only compounded the Democrats’ problem.

By the time Ronald Reagan became president, then, the image of Democrats as weak on national security and Republicans as tough was firmly entrenched in the American mind. It is an image that has repeatedly hurt Democratic presidential candidates. In 1984, voters accepted Reagan’s argument that only he could be trusted to handle a Soviet Union on the march. Four years later, pictures of an uncomfortable Michael Dukakis riding atop a tank seemed to embody the suspicion that national security was an issue alien to Democrats. George W. Bush squeaked through in 2000 because the Republican reputation for being tough insulated him from charges that he was ill-prepared for foreign policy. Only Bill Clinton broke the string of Republican victories. And he benefited from a bit of luck: The collapse of the Soviet Union convinced Americans for a time that a president only needed to worry about domestic policy.

If national security has hurt Democrats in presidential elections, why haven’t they reversed course and reclaimed the banner of muscular internationalism that voters seem to prefer? It is not that Democrats don’t recognize they have a problem. For twenty-five years Democratic political consultants have urged their candidates to persuade voters that they are willing to exercise America’s power to defend its interests. Nor is the problem a lack of intellectual capital. Democratic strategists at Washington think tanks can match their Republican counterparts foreign policy vision for foreign policy vision.

The Democrats’ problem instead has deeper roots: Outside of think tank conference rooms, muscular internationalism has no appeal to any major constituency inside the Democratic Party. White southern Democrats, the group most receptive to such appeals, long ago migrated to the Republican Party. African Americans, perhaps the most loyal Democratic constituency, see international engagement as a diversion from domestic affairs and worry that their blood will be disproportionately spilled in foreign conflicts. Labor unions also favor bread-and-butter economic issues over national security issues. Their primary foreign policy concern is seeing that trade agreements protect American jobs. Environmental, human rights, and development groups want the United States to flex its soft power and not its hard power.

Reinforcing these political incentives is the fact that cooperative internationalism actually works for many congressional Democrats. In the 1980s, House and Senate Democrats found it politically profitable to attack the Reagan and Bush administration for being too belligerent. Opposition to increased defense spending, aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, and Star Wars energized key constituencies.

Policy positions that help congressional candidates, however, can hurt presidential ones. American voters have different expectations for White House aspirants because the job is different. Lawmakers debate, presidents decide. Americans want to know that whoever occupies the White House will do whatever it takes to defend their country from its enemies. The September 11 attacks reinforced this concern. Yet, in 2004, as in earlier years, no Democratic running for the presidential nomination was able to convince voter that they were up to that task.

Democratic presidential candidates have traditionally sought to solve their image problem by talking tougher on foreign policy as Election Day draws near. But campaign conversions always have a hollow ring. Explaining away years of votes is difficult to do, even with a biography as impressive as John Kerry’s. Voters notice gaps between words and deeds. Moreover, in sounding Republican on foreign policy, these Democrats only give voters more reason to vote for the real thing. When given a choice between a Republican and a Republican, Harry Truman used to say, the Republican always wins!

Would Democrats have fared better in 2004 if they had embraced cooperative internationalism rather than tried to blur their differences with Republicans? Perhaps. John Kerry’s shifting explanations for his vote authorizing the Iraq war made him vulnerable to the most devastating criticism that can be leveled against any presidential candidate—that his convictions followed the polls. But running Howard Dean might not have worked either. Most Americans in 1972 agreed with George McGovern that Vietnam had been a mistake. They still gave 49 states to Richard Nixon.

The challenge for Democrats as they look toward 2008 is to develop a national security vision that recognizes what troubles voters—that Democrats do not see the president’s first duty as defending American interests. Accomplishing this task does not mean aping George W. Bush’s policy choices. For these offer much to criticize, whether in botching the occupation of Iraq, treating allies dismissively, or failing to fashion a coherent policy toward Iran and North Korea. But as the 2004 election showed, telling voters what went wrong is not enough. They need to hear convincing arguments on how to do things right.

Addressing voters’ concerns also does not mean abandoning Democrats’ core belief that the United States benefits by working cooperatively with others through international institutions and extending the rule of law. It does mean explaining how the cooperative ventures they favor will make Americans safer rather than more popular. It means publicly acknowledging what everyone privately knows—that the United Nations and many other international institutions desperately need to be reformed. And it means taking on Democrats who reflexively recoil from the idea of using military force or blame America first for all the world’s ills.

The challenge for Democrats in the coming years will be to rethink their approach to foreign policy. This is no easy task. It is always difficult to swim against the tide. If the Iraq insurgency continues and Americans continue to die at a steadily growing rate, the temptation to hold tightly to traditional Democratic positions will grow. But until Democrats can change how voters view them, they will always begin their pursuit of the White House several steps behind their Republican opponents.

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