The Bridegroom, as the last post indicates, is beginning to reconnect with terrestrial matters, but he’s asked me to keep up the content for a few more hours. This gives me an opportunity to recommend an article by Matt Yglesias, which has finally been posted online by The American Prospect, about the roots of Democratic weakness on national security issues.
His basic thesis, which echoes the seminal New Democrat analysis by Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck back in 1989, The Politics of Evasion, is that the Democratic “security gap” is less a matter of policy differences than of a persistent belief that national security issues are “enemy turf” which Democrats should try to avoid or simply neutralize, while changing the subject back to more congenial domestic issues.
Yglesias argues strenuously that there is a robust and relatively united point of view on national security among wonks and shadow-cabinet experts (such as the Progressive Internationalism manifesto midwifed by the Progressive Policy Institute last year), which is more important than the increasingly-moot differences of opinion on the decision to invade Iraq. But this consensus Democratic wisdom never quite makes it into Democratic presidential or congressional campaigns.
Despite a reasonably broad consensus among left-of-center security hands about what should be done, the partyâs political operatives are unable to turn that consensus into a compelling political narrative. Democrats are reluctant to address security issues except when forced to do so, and, as a result, they discover that when they are so forced, they arenât very good at it. Political failure breeds further reluctance, which breeds further failure — no one develops the relevant ability to spin security for partisan gain, and because no one can win on security, no one learns how to campaign on it.
The Kerry campaign, he suggests, was a prime example of this disconnect. Democrats had in 2004 a candidate with a strong national security record, supported by a strong personal biography, but in the end, he was perceived as weak on the very set of issues that made so many primary voters believe he was “electable.” Why? Because he never had a real national security message, and his campaign made sure of that.
Polls showed that voters were concerned that things were going badly in Iraq, so Kerry talked about it. They showed that voters were concerned about Americaâs relations with its allies, so he talked about that. This approach may work well enough on domestic issues where the goodies — tax credits, Social Security checks, new schools, lower insurance premiums — are concrete and separable.
The best example of this disconnect was on the subject of nuclear terrorism, which, as Yglesias notes, has been an obsessive concern, and a common critique of Bush, shared by virtually all Democrats. Kerry’s record on this issue was unimpeachable, consistent, and moreover, the centerpiece of his argument that unilateralism in foreign policy threatened our national security. But you didn’t hear much about it on the campaign trail, because Kerry’s political wizards didn’t think it was a “voting issue.”
But Yglesias doesn’t blame the consulting class as the sole source of the problem: he also score party activists who simply aren’t interested in national security.
New initiatives under way to train a new generation of progressive activists often offer civil liberties as a potential area of interest, but not national security or foreign policy. Of course civil liberties are important, but a strategy to ensure that the government doesnât go too far in combating terrorism only makes sense as part of a strategy that will ensure that the government also goes far enough. Liberals may think it should go without saying that we, too, want to keep America safe, but in practice it doesnât go without saying. A movement interested in preparing to defend the United States from its own security apparatus but not against terrorism is inviting the attack that it cares more about protecting terrorists than their victims. Worse, it deprives itself of the ability to cultivate people who will be able to articulate a progressive message on national security in the future.
Most provocatively, Yglesias suggests that the fundamental cause of the “politics of evasion” among Democrats on national security is this: we don’t have any recognized constituency group that cares about it!
The upshot is that no one is charged with looking after a topic, like national security, that concerns everyone, rather than anyone in particular. There exists no major group in Washington that deﬁnes itself as both progressive and primarily concerned with the topics of foreign policy and security. Until this is changed, it will be hard for Democrats to engage with the subject as they must — at every level, and not merely in presidential campaigns. It will also be all but impossible to build a broad, thematic case on security policy — one that raises the way in which the rightâs tax-cut jihad at home starves the government of resources needed to ﬁght the real one around the world, and questions the ﬁtness of a movement with an ambivalent view toward theocracy at home to combat it abroad — rather than a laundry list of narrow, technocratic criticisms.
I rarely use the term “must-read,” but I recommend Yglesias’ piece to all Democrats, and especially to those Democrats who have been unhappy with the more abrasive argument of Peter Beinart about the urgency of making the Democratic Party’s position on national security unambiguous. Matt is not endorsing–indeed, he is rejecting–any intra-party fight or “purge;” but he is arguing that Democratic antipathy to the whole subject of national security is making us all susceptible to the GOP claim that we ultimately just don’t give a damn.