A Question of Vision

Stuck in the wilderness for at least another two years, the Democratic Party has conjured the spirits of conventional wisdom, and they have spoken. “The Democrats produce a litany of concerns, while the Republicans have a narrative,” says James Carville. “Democrats must speak in a language that allows all voters to know we share their outlook for a strong and prosperous country,” writes Donna Brazile. David Gergen, former advisor to Presidents Clinton and Reagan (among others) and the living embodiment of well-regarded banality, announces that “they’ve got to re-examine their ideas—and whether they’ve got something fresh, interesting and compelling to offer the country.” Sounds like somebody needs a message.

The good thing about these insights is that, like most conventional wisdom, they’re essentially correct. The bad thing about these insights is that, like most conventional wisdom, they’re vague, blithe, and totally reactive. While Democrats need to talk better (or, according to some, straighter) on everything from gay marriage to tax cuts, all of the major recrimination theories— from endemic laundry listlessness to letting the Bushies set the frame of the debate to “moral values” to not fighting back against Swift Boat Vets—ultimately stem from the big unspoken problem: when it comes to the politics of foreign policy, the party of Roosevelt is decidedly overmatched. Screw the economy; it’s the foreign policy, stupid.

This is not to say the Democrats should give up on being fiscally responsible and on forging a vision of equality and economic security—it’s just that the biggest issue right now in American political culture is what to do about the people who want to blow us up. A national poll conducted by CBS News/The New York Times two weeks after the election asked what the most important problem for government to address was over the coming year, and the like-minded combination of defense, foreign policy, war, Iraq/Osama Bin Laden and “terrorism general”, took 40 percent of the pie. Similar amalgamations like jobs, economy, budget deficit, social security, and healthcare (27 percent) or moral values and abortion (5 percent, or 19 percent , if you want to believe that all of the 14 percent in the “other” category had to do with gay marriage) didn’t even come close. The Election Day exit polls revealed that 71 percent of Americans are worried about terrorism—only 46 percent of them picked Kerry—and a plurality pointed to either Iraq or terrorism as the driving reason for their vote.

Obviously, as Kerry supporters found out on November 3, polls have only a limited predictive value. They merely confirm what everyone already knows; or, more precisely, should’ve known. In this case, they reinforced the reasons why John Kerry originally framed his campaign around his ability to decisively kill people, why the GOP convention revolved around hawkish speeches from the sell-out wings of the Republican and Democratic Parties, why there was a debate devoted solely to foreign affairs, and why every stump speech focused on either attacking the Iraq war as a distraction or praising it as a victory. There was nothing inaccurate about the pre-election conventional wisdom that the choice came down to who could best make sure 9/11 didn’t happen again.

Those who see responsible bookkeeping as the road to victory are kidding themselves. “Americans like to vote on their pocketbook,” noted Rachel Belton, co-director of the Democratoriented Truman National Security Project, “but not when they fear for their life.” According to the exit polls, almost one-fifth of the American population said that terrorism was the deciding factor in their vote, and they voted for Bush by a margin of 86-14. Despite a 55 percent disapproval rating of his handling of Iraq, the November 18-21 CBS/NYT poll still had Bush garnering approval ratings of nearly 60 percent for his prosecution of the war on terror. 73 percent said he would make the right decisions in protecting the US from terrorist attacks. The growing pile of polling data confirms the logic of common sense: foreign policy matters. A lot.

That Vision Thing

Democrats did do a couple things right. Unlike in previous elections, “we weren’t scared to talk about foreign policy this time around,” said Michael Pan, a former State Department official now working at the Center for American Progress. Additionally, Democrats raised in the “Vietnam era of activists never were calling for the US to withdraw [immediately] from Iraq” and, thanks to a unified party front, Kerry was able to forcefully attack the incumbent on his most glaring policy failure. This paid political dividends: what had once been seen as political gold for Bush had clearly become a liability. On election day, 15 percent of voters cited Iraq as the most important issue, and Bush won only a quarter of their votes.

But Iraq was a mess, and Kerry didn’t put forward a coherent critique of Bush’s policy failures until September 20, when he delivered a straightforward smackdown at NYU. But by then, Kerry’s lack of clarity and famous “$87 billion” line had already cost him dearly.

At first, the Kerry campaign thought they could escape the Vietnam-induced impression of Democrats as “weak” by embracing Vietnam itself. Charles Krauthammer, the neoconservative columnist for The Washington Post, said that the Democrats’ “fatal mistake was to believe that you could reassure the American people by invoking four months in Vietnam 35 years ago.” Of course, that gambit almost worked, but then the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began their smear crusade and the campaign failed to respond. Kerry’s main selling point was tainted, and his numbers plummeted throughout August.

It’s easy to second-guess tactical failures; what’s more important to look at are the strategic assumptions behind them. Trying, as Krauthammer said, “to solve a policy question with biography,” was evidence of the Democratic Party’s failure to develop an alternative, coherent foreign policy political message. This was glaringly obvious the week before the election, when the Kerry campaign endlessly harped on The New York Ti m e s–reported mishandling of munitions at al-Qaaqaa in Iraq, where the Administration had refused to send enough troops. At the end of the first debate, Kerry called for “a commander-in-chief who could get your kids home and get the job done and win the peace.”

Pan called this technocratic, issue-based approach “highlighting when they made mistakes” and “holding them to account to a lot of promises they made earlier on.” There was another problem with making efficacy of management the main thrust of the attack. “This year they ran on competence,” Krauthammer said. “To run an election like that, you have to hope for bad news.”

In the first debate, Kerry focused on politics, on policies, on failures, and Bush retorted with a similar tack, focusing on his leadership skills. But then he added something extra: “And we’ll continue to spread freedom. I believe in the transformational power of liberty. I believe that the free Iraq is in this nation’s interests. I believe a free Afghanistan is in this nation’s interest.” In one fell swoop, Bush couched his radical foreign policy in the terms of enlightened, self-interested exceptionalism, a value system that every American could relate to. Kerry had alliances and credibility and a plan; Bush had freedom.

It’s unfair to blame Kerry alone. The lack of vision ran much deeper. Belton noted that, since Vietnam, “[Democrats’] hard foreign policy people are very afraid to speak in terms of values,” and thus “the technocratic speak they employ comes across as politically-driven.” This trap resulted in a dynamic where Bush would make a grand statement and Kerry would respond with a “plan” and, as Belton pointed out, if you “only respond with policy arguments, it doesn’t take down the ideological argument.”

This dilemma explains some of the apparent contradictions in the polling data. In the case of Iraq, a clear single issue of incompetence, Kerry was able to gain traction. But, on terrorism, a more inchoate threat with obvious ideological implications, Bush was insurmountable. Sure, Bush had the advantages of incumbency and no terrorist attacks since 9/11, but that can’t fully explain why those primarily concerned about terrorism preferred Bush by a margin of 72 points.

The Long Road Ahead

Foreign policy, more so than economics or social policy, cannot be dealt with issue-by-issue. When Pan went door-to-door to get out the vote, he was asked questions about economics, jobs, and other immediate concerns. No one asked him about foreign policy. On this issue more than any other, “there’s a higher value in a coherent message from the top.” The key is to create a framework, a prism through which voters will think about foreign policy and then, hopefully, trust Democrats to keep them safe.

When I asked Krauthammer what kind of credible alternative the Democrats could put forward, he attacked the political premise of my question: instead of just searching for a polling sweet spot, “they have to figure out what they really believe.” His response highlighted the gap between the policy—where the Democrats have built up a stockpile of scholars and security officials who have constructed serious alternative policies on a range of issues—and the political side, where foreign policy is often viewed as a choice between political acquiescence or harping criticism.

Belton admits that if “you look at how our policy is made [in America], it’s also going to be incoherent,” but “what you can do is put some intellectual rigor in it.” And that’s what the Republicans have been doing for the past 20 years: trying to give their policy proposals an ideological foundation. “The Democrats just haven’t that kind of deep thinking,” Belton said. He sees the root of the problem in, yes, “values.” Like many other members of the Democratic security establishment, Belton thinks the Administration has waged a military campaign against a tactic (terrorism), instead of waging an ideological battle against Islamist fundamentalism. Approaching the current fight with Jihadism as a defense of liberal values— instead of just a problem of “rogue states”—creates an expansive view of national security that ranges from military flexibility to economic might to politically-stabilizing foreign aid to broad-based alliances.

The Truman Project’s mission and purpose is a tidy microcosm of what the Democratic Party needs to start doing now. Belton, its co-director, has hired experts on everything from peacekeeping to international law, and their main function is to come up with policy ideas. What makes it different from, say, the Brookings Institution, is that everything is couched in the language of “values”: economic liberalization begets liberty; peacekeeping begets stable, free democracies; alliances reveal America’s leadership. Its goal is, via policy papers and outreach to (mainly younger) politicians, to create a political movement in the party a la the centrist Democratic Leadership Council that clarifies party thinking and produces a compelling agenda. Right now, Belton said, “when [politicians] speak in Oklahoma, talking about values, they don’t think about turning foreign policy on its head.” That needs to change.

No one expects a quick fix. “It took 20 years to lose the national security debate,” Belton said, and it’s going to take time to win it back. But, as Pan points out, when it comes to the politics of national security, the Democratic party cannot “afford to wait another four years like we did this time around.” Krauthammer is dubious. Unlike parliamentary democracies, the American system isn’t conducive for party-line discipline. “You’re not going to get Howard Dean and Joe Lieberman to agree on Iraq,” he said. “You won’t get a unified policy.”

Krauthammer is right—it is hard to imagine Joe Lieberman and Howard Dean agreeing on every single issue. But that’s not what the Democratic Party needs; it just has to get them speaking the same value-induced language. T h e beauty of viewing national security through a necessarily expansive lens is that there are different elements for different politicians to emphasize: dovish types can tout foreign aid and other democracy-promoting measures, businessmen can hail the glories of economic liberalization, and hawks can praise a rapid-responding, flexible military.

Obviously, there will be debates and recriminations in the future. But, unlike the fight over Iraq, it shouldn’t be solely tied to whatever the opposition does. The Democratic Party needs to start talking about a worldview that envisions keeping America safe by spreading the values of democracy, tolerance, intelligent strength, and transparency. And then one day, abroad as well at home, Democrats might reap political gain by doing what they always should: spreading liberalism.