There is a little noticed tendency about the character of national political parties, that is, they tend to trade places or invert positions on critical issues over time. For instance, the Republican Party at the time of the Civil War led the bloody struggle against slavery while the Democratic Party of the day solidified its base in the south among the angry white gentry and workers alike. A century later, the Democratic Party championed the civil rights movement for disenfranchised black Americans while Republicans countered with a subtle “southern strategy” aimed at garnering the support of resentful southern whites. In the 1890’s, it was the Republicans that were the staunch supporters of protectionist tariffs and balanced budgets; fast forward to the 1990’s and they had become the party more identified with free trade and massive budget deficits. Meanwhile, the Democrats, once seen as irresponsible spent thrifts, have now seized the mantle of prudent government spending and fiscal responsibility as main campaign themes while raising and responding to public concerns over the dangers of unfettered trade trends.
What matters drive these reversals in fortune and political position?
It is the conduct of war perhaps more than any other national issue that can fundamentally reshape the domestic politics of the United States. Iraq is fueling a new reexamination of political ties currently, but these political shocks and tectonic shifts animate the history of much of the last Century, beginning with America’s entry into the Great War. The bloody battlefields of World War I, the disillusionment associated with the Versailles Treaty and the failure of the League of Nations helped to undermine Woodrow Wilson’s liberal internationalism along with the fortunes of his Democratic Party. In this wake, Warren Harding won a landslide victory in 1920 and set the stage for America’s descent into isolationism that would mark the country’s approach to the world for the next generation. Isolationists in the Republican Congress and among Eastern industrialists helped pass a series of Neutrality Acts in the 1930’s and organized themselves formally as the American First Committee in an effort to keep the nation out of the messy politics of Europe and involvement in destructive foreign wars. The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at once invalidated American isolationism, undermining the existing Republican Party in the process — effectively requiring its reinvention — and helped provide the context for an internationalist consensus that saw out the 20th Century.
These profound intergenerational shifts in partisan philosophy and issue identification should serve as a cautionary note to those who would argue that the Republican advantages on war and national security issues are permanent and immutable. While it is true that there are a range of powerful cultural and ideological factors that bind the U.S. military and its most fervent public supporters to the Republicans, several things are happening that at least suggest that the now long established and carefully nurtured Republican dominance on matters of national security is in jeopardy.
First, the war in Iraq and reconstruction of that nation has created an intensely focused debate over defense policy in the United States. Further, after ignoring or denying their problem for years, Democrats have begun to take notice of the fact that defense is the only major national issue on which the Republicans have held a decisive advantage in recent elections and have started to fight back. A number of private and public initiatives in recent years — including the Valley Forge Project, the Truman Democrats, the Wilderness Initiative, the Third Way project, and the national security work of the Center for American Progress — have been launched to help rebuild national security awareness and expertise within the Democratic Party. There are also a number of Iraq war veterans running for Congress in the upcoming elections bringing their military experiences, perspectives, and public appeal into the political arena, this time under the banner of the Democratic Party. Democrats, too, are studying the play book of earlier Republican electoral victories, for instance, seeking to replicate some of the organizational strategies so effectively utilized by the Vulcans, those senior defense and foreign policy practitioners who closed ranks around Governor Bush in advance of the 2000 election, to project an image of seriousness and experience when it comes to national security.
This is a potentially epochal development in American politics, on par with the major shifts in American history described above, but one that will be fleeting or illusory unless Democrats tackle these issues with a deadly seriousness. Most of the recent returns that seem to signal a growing favor for the Democrats in the battle of hearts and minds in polling on military issues reflect a growing disenchantment with Republicans as opposed to a compelling attraction to the competing Democrat vision (when there happens to be one). This means that for Democrats, time’s a wasting. Democrats will have to be more than the anti-Bush politicians to gain more lasting advantage than a temporary boost from the next election. They will need the kind of idea-driven agenda, and confident preoccupation with matters of national security that has generally been conceded to the GOP in recent decades. However, after a hiatus, the Democrats are trying to get back into the national security game.