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.