Dem Candidates On The Defensive

2 October 2003

By Stentor Danielson

When it comes to national security, the Democratic Party has an inferiority complex. Conventional wisdom holds that the Republican Party is better at defending America, and there are no shortage of conservative commentators accusing liberals of wanting to surrender to al-Qaida.

In this respect, September 11 was a godsend. Americans rallied behind Bush, and millions of formerly disappointed Gore voters counted themselves lucky that their man was off somewhere trimming his beard instead of calling the shots from the Oval Office.

Republicans have played this for all it’s worth. In the 2002 midterm elections, Republican candidates were unabashed in questioning the patriotism of their opponents. The Democrats hoped that they could simply dodge the issue, diverting attention instead to the struggling economy. This plan failed, leading to an unexpected loss of Congressional seats, for two reasons: because the Democrats never had any coherent message about the economy beyond saying the GOP wasn't doing well, and because national security remained on voters' minds even though it was absent from Democratic candidates' lips.

There will be no dodging national security in 2004. The Republican National Convention will be held in New York City shortly after the third anniversary of September 11, with all the symbolism that entails. Bush has staked his presidency on the war in Iraq, so his reelection campaign will amount to a referendum on that mission. The Democratic nominee will have to meet him on the grounds of national security.

This presents quite a conundrum. Saying "me too" to the war –- the strategy of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman – won’t help much. Pro-war voters will quite reasonably take the guy who led the war over the guy who liked the war, and anti-war voters will throw up their hands in disgust. But criticizing the war opens a candidate to charges of being soft on national security. With well over half of the American public still thinking the war was the right thing to do, the charge of pacifism could be deadly.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was supposed to be the answer. Kerry was a decorated Vietnam veteran, and so, it was thought, impervious to charges of lack of patriotism. With his Purple Heart on display, Kerry could critique the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq with impunity.

This might have worked if Kerry had been truly critical. Unfortunately, he was hampered by being anointed the front-runner early in the race and by his "yes" vote on the Congressional resolution that gave Bush the domestic all-clear to invade Iraq. Kerry weaseled and waffled, trying to have it both ways in order to avoid either alienating anyone or having to admit his previous stance was wrong. He has come around to more straightforward criticism late in the game, trying to imitate former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s fiery anti-Bush and anti-war rhetoric.

Dean’s strategy has been to keep the focus on Bush. He has mastered the art of twisting a direct question into an opportunity to set forth a pre-cooked piece of rhetoric. The idea is to put the Republicans on the defensive. But it gives voters little insight into how President Dean would conduct himself, beyond "not like Bush." Bush found out the hard way with regard to North Korea that "do the opposite of what Bill Clinton would have done" is not an effective foreign policy doctrine, so it would behoove the Democrats not to make the same kind of mistake.

Despite his vicious assault on Bush's incompetence, Dean has been dogged for months by the accusation that his longstanding opposition to the war makes him "unelectable." He has been driven to take a very belligerent stance with regard to any war except the recent one in Iraq, declaring –- much to the chagrin of his anti-war supporters -– that he was in favor of every U.S. military intervention after Vietnam and before Iraq II.

With retired General Wesley Clark, the Democratic establishment is having another go at the Kerry strategy. While Kerry became an outspoken peace advocate after serving in Vietnam, Clark was a military man right up to the next-to-last war the U.S. fought, the campaign against Slobodan Milosevic’s forces in Kosovo. Clark disdained NATO's risk-averse aerial bombing strategy, preferring the use of ground troops. While Clark came to prominence as a CNN military analyst critical of the war, he may even have supported Operation Iraqi Freedom initially –- his remarks on the subject remain contradictory.

As a four-star general, Clark is thought to be impervious to criticism of being soft on defense. Yet if the GOP can take down Max Cleland for being unpatriotic, no resume grants its holder safety. Cleland lost two legs and an arm in Vietnam, but lost his Senate seat in last year’s election on charges of pacifism.

What the Democrats need is not more medals, but more substance. One element of that substance needs to be getting off the defensive about Republican domination of the national security issue. The ingredients are there –- from the underfunding of Homeland Security to the destruction of international alliances and the blossoming of al-Qaida in Iraq –- for a clear message that Bush has made the country less safe.

The message, however, most needs a positive component. The party is having a tough time articulating any consistent message or vision for keeping America safe. Take, for instance, nation-building in Iraq. Democrats have long denounced the Bush administration's commitment of resources to the project for being too thin. Relying on neoconservative optimism, Bush told us that both the war and the peace in Iraq could be won cheaply, and has been proven wrong by subsequent events.

In recent weeks Bush finally turned over a new leaf, begging at the U.N. for much needed reinforcements and asking Congress and the American taxpayers to commit $87 billion for reconstruction. Yet the Democratic candidates seemed more intent on being anti-Bush than on expressing a coherent vision. At the most recent debate, only Lieberman, Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich, and the Rev. Al Sharpton had a clear answer to whether the U.S. should pay such a steep price -– one yea and two nays. The other seven candidates waffled around, trying to avoid making a commitment one way or the other. That kind of indecision doesn’t win elections.

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