Sunday, December 19, 2004

Diagnosing the Democrats

In the wake of the 2004 elections, Democrats have indulged a parade of postmortems about why their presidential candidate lost to an incumbent whom many (including this humble blogger) see as unmitigated disaster. While I think some of the hand-wringing has been overblown -- after all, the race was pretty damn close -- such self-assessment is only fitting as Democrats search for the next Democratic National Committee chair and ponder their party's future.

These are more than academic considerations. Potential DNC leaders include ex-presidential candidate Howard Dean, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, former Indian Rep. Tim Roemer, ex-Texas Rep. Martin Frost, one-time Clinton advisor Harold Ickes, former Texas Democratic Party head Molly Beth Malcolm and the Rev. Al Sharpton (OK, I'm lying about Sharpton being a possibility; that suggestion is just a Christmas present for Republican readers of this blog).

Surveys and additional analysis, thankfully, have done much to erode the post-election conventional wisdom that "moral" issues (read: the Religious Right) dominated the race for the White House. A previous posting here and a surfeit of other blogs have pointed out that it was actually the War on Terrorism and War on Iraq that topped the concerns of most voters.

Subsequently, I would direct anyone interested to The New Republic editor Peter Beinart and his commentary, "A Fighting Faith." In both this and a prequel of sorts titled "The Good Fight," Beinart suggests that liberalism must appreciate its stake in countering the threat of Islamic totalitarianism.

While both pieces are certainly worth reading, let me offer a few key passages:

"Today, three years after September 11 brought the United States face-to-face with a new totalitarian threat, liberalism has still not 'been fundamentally reshaped' by the experience. On the right, a 'historical re-education' has indeed occurred -- replacing the isolationism of the Gingrich Congress with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's near-theological faith in the transformative capacity of U.S. military might.

"But American liberalism, as defined by its activist organizations, remains largely what it was in the 1990s -- a collection of domestic interests and concerns. On health care, gay rights, and the environment, there is a positive vision, articulated with passion. But there is little liberal passion to win the struggle against Al Qaeda -- even though totalitarian Islam has killed thousands of Americans and aims to kill millions; and even though, if it gained power, its efforts to force every aspect of life into conformity with a barbaric interpretation of Islam would reign terror upon women, religious minorities, and anyone in the Muslim world with a thirst for modernity or freedom.

"When liberals talk about America's new era, the discussion is largely negative -- against the Iraq war, against restrictions on civil liberties, against America's worsening reputation in the world. In sharp contrast to the first years of the cold war, post-September 11 liberalism has produced leaders and institutions --most notably Michael Moore and MoveOn -- that do not put the struggle against America's new totalitarian foe at the center of their hopes for a better world.

"[John] Kerry's criticisms of Bush's Iraq policy were trenchant, but the only alternative principle he clearly articulated was multilateralism, which often sounded like a veiled way of asking Americans to do less. And, because he never urged a national mobilization for safety and freedom, his discussion of terrorism lacked Bush's grandeur. That wasn't an accident. Had Kerry aggressively championed a national mobilization to win the war on terrorism, he wouldn't have been the Democratic nominee."

Beinart goes on to argue that liberalism, truth be told, is particularly well-suited to fight the perils of Islamic totalitarianism:

"Bush has not increased the size of the U.S. military since September 11--despite repeated calls from hawks in his own party--in part because, given his massive tax cuts, he simply cannot afford to. An anti-totalitarian liberalism would attack those tax cuts not merely as unfair and fiscally reckless, but, above all, as long-term threats to America's ability to wage war against fanatical Islam. Today, however, there is no liberal constituency for such an argument in a Democratic Party in which only 2 percent of delegates called 'terrorism' their paramount issue and another 1 percent mentioned 'defense.'

"But, despite these differences, Islamist totalitarianism -- like Soviet totalitarianism before it--threatens the United States and the aspirations of millions across the world. And, as long as that threat remains, defeating it must be liberalism's north star. Methods for defeating totalitarian Islam are a legitimate topic of internal liberal debate. But the centrality of the effort is not. The recognition that liberals face an external enemy more grave ... than George W. Bush should be the litmus test of a decent left.

"Today, the war on terrorism is partially obscured by the war in Iraq, which has made liberals cynical about the purposes of U.S. power. But, even if Iraq is Vietnam, it no more obviates the war on terrorism than Vietnam obviated the battle against communism. Global jihad will be with us long after American troops stop dying in Falluja and Mosul."

Beinart makes a compelling case, but I think this final passage actually proves troublesome to his own argument. The War in Iraq and the War on Terrorism were inexorably stitched together in the minds of many Americans -- most Americans, perhaps -- when they cast their vote for Bush-Cheney.

Iraq had changed everything. The threat of Islamic terrorism is immediate and deadly serious, but once the bombs rained down on Baghdad, fundamentalist Islamic terrorism was no longer simply about fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. Even if Beinart doesn't admit it -- and, in fact, he espouses from the conceit that the War in Iraq and War on Terrorism were two separate issues -- the mission to stamp out terrorism had been co-opted.

You remember that scene in "National Lampoon's Animal House" at the fraternity disciplinary hearing where Otter turns the charge against Delta Tau Delta into an indictment against our entire way of life and the United States of America? Well, it's not for nothing that George W. Bush was a dedicated frat dude.

Anyway, I suspect that even if Democrats had single-mindedly circled the wagons around the War on Terrorism, they wouldn't have accrued much, if any, political capital from it -- aside from the self-satisfaction of doing the right thing, of course. But let's be honest; in politics, doing the right thing is weighed against a multitude of other factors.

I think Democrats, for the most part, have failed to approximate a post-9/11 reality into their worldview. But I am equally convinced that the Bush White House shrewdly -- and shamelessly -- manipulated that reality to further an agenda that stretched far beyond the parameters of battling terrorism.


At 10:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting point of view, Chase. Isn't the problem that one's political ideology - whether it be on the right or left - should not be driven by a desire for "political capital?" It does not appear to me that the Republicans coopted the issue of terrorism. Instead, it appears to me that the Democratic candidate was perceived to be searching for a politically attractive way to condemn the current approach and yet accomplish the underlying goal - victory in Iraq and a safe world - that indisputably had to be won through the existing war.

The very question - which approach to terror is likely to win "political capital" - was the obsession of the Democrats and their downfall this time. Unquestionably the same problem would have plagued the Republicans had they been the challenging party. But they weren't. Perhaps one day Republicans and Democrats alike will simply say what they believe without searching for the politically attractive course and, in doing so, recognize the possibility that on certain issues the "other side" may actually be right.

At 3:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always very insightful Chase. I do think that Americans who voted for Bush had to tie the War on Terrorism and the War in Iraq together because it is the only way to make sense of the War. We all need a sound bite to understand war in general and "War on Terrorism" sounds good.

I will agree with what the previous anonymous poster said about the challenge for Democrats to find a way to say that their approach to the war in Iraq was better than George Bush's plan. It is the same difficulty that Bob Dole had when he ran against Clinton in his second term. We all want good economic times, clean drinking water, peace on Earth, etc. but it is more believable coming from the guy holding the keys to the White House.

At 3:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love the title of this post Dr. Chase!

At 11:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't wait to read this one, but I think I need a good night's sleep first. I thought I was looking at a Reddirt posting at first because this one is sooooo long.

At 4:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post, as usual.

I really like Beinart's use of the phrase "Islamist totalitarianism." I think that naming our enemy is very important. We on the liberal side of things are very concerned about political correctness and inclusiveness, and rightfully so. One problem, I think, has been the tendency to try to be tolerant of Islamist totalitarianism, based on the mistaken belief that this is being tolerant of a religion. There is some debate as to whether there are any practitioners of Islam that do not ascribe to Islamist totalitarian beliefs, but that's a whole different question. The term "fundamentalist" is too broad, and brings to mind fundamentalist Christians, and muddies the waters by seeming to put the two on the same playing field. Fundamentalist Christians have their problems, but they aren't decapitating relief workers and crashing airliners into office buildings.
I sense in our population in general and in liberals in particular a real lack of understanding of who our enemy is. Liberals ignore Islamist fundamentalists, and conservatives think they are somehow connected to the old Iraqi regime and Sadam Hussein.
Politicans and pundits from all political points of view need to name and define our enemy. Our enemy is real, is powerful, and is trying to destroy our country and our lives. In our 2-second attention span culture, 9/11 is a distant and best forgotten memory, and most people go through their days not even noticing events in Iraq. Afghanistan, where the Islamist totalitarians had their base of operations, is completely off our national radar screen. We are truly in a fight for our lives and our civilization, and we are forgetting that, partly because no one has defined for the American people who exactly we are fighting. I think this is because Bush and company intentionally confused our population, much to our detriment in the long term fight. Never has it been more important to really know our enemy.

At 9:13 PM, Blogger RedDirt said...

Red Dirt can't help the loooong posts. He has diarrhea of the laptop keyboard, as he's often admitted. Once he gets going after a cup of espresso rocket fuel, it's hard for him to stop. Besides, I take it that at least some people like them. I'll try to spice it up with some more short posts on news of the weird over X-mas break.


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