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March 10, 2005

The Politics of Crises

Reacting to Matt's TAP column, Brad Plumer writes:

Maybe Bush's democracy agenda will be so successful that foreign policy if off the table in 2008 or 2012. And Democrats can then swoop in with their unbeatable economic/cultural message. Fine. But the price of all that is that Republicans further enhance their long-standing image as the reliable foreign policy party. The fall of the Soviet Union did a good deal of enhancing in 1989; as did the liberation of Kuwait in 1991; as did, I think, some of Nixon's successes. These are all somewhat contingent events (i.e. Democrats could have accomplished similar things), but they helped build the Republican mystique. And eventually, foreign policy will come back to the fore in elections. It always has and it always will. But if Republicans and only Republicans can take credit for successes past (i.e. Bush's foreign policy, assuming it succeeds), they'll be instant winners at the polls once more.

Maybe. But probably not. The only way for a party to build that mystique is to have one of their members in the Oval Office during a time of national crisis. George W. Bush, for instance, was not considered a particularly good choice on foreign policy until that fateful day he spent reading "My Pet Goat". In fact, Gore led in foreign policy throughout the campaign, with the final poll showing that Americans trusted Al more than George, 50%-36%. And, if not for Gore's lackluster performance and the shenanigans in Florida, he would have occupied the White House on 9/11, and Democrats would have benefitted from one of their own proving himself a strong and capable commander-in-chief presiding during a national crisis.

In fact, and I hate to say this, Democrats were extraordinarily unlucky not to have a foreign policy crisis occur during Clinton's presidency. There was no Kuwait (Bosnia/Kosovo was a humanitarian crisis, which is a bit different), no Cuban Missile Crisis, no Cold War treaties, and certainly no 9/11. And that meant no opportunity to undo the party's lackluster image on national security. In fact, the only crisis a "recently" elected Democrat has presided over was the Iranian hostage crisis, which saw our arms tied and our rescue mission downed via mechanical malfunctions (and if you think Reagan could have done better on that one, please go read up on your Iran-Contra). Moreover, Democrats are less likely to respond to foreign provocation with invasions and overwhelming displays of force when unnecessary. There's no doubt in my mind that Bush 43 would have invaded Somalia in the aftermath of Mogadishu, accomplishing nothing but proving America's masculinity by sacrificing a few score of its young, and likely boosting his poll numbers in the process. We don't do that, and so we don't get to improve our public perception by implementing destructive and idiotic policies.

So the reason that it's important to take national security off the table and get a Democrat into the Oval Office is precisely so, if another crisis does hit, a member of our party is in place to deal with it, thus proving Democratic competence and strength. If Al Gore had been in office during 9/11, not only would he have sailed to reelection, but he'd likely be passing universal health care with the political capital he didn't squander on Iraq. And any future Democrat elected to the presidency, even if he gets there on domestic issues (as Bush did), will be in place to remake the image of his party in the event that a crisis does occur.

Preemptive Clarification: It should be obvious, but just to be clear, I'm discussing the politics of foreign policy crises here. Of course I'd prefer it if there never was another one. But the fact remains that such events have electoral ramifications and are often exploited with astounding cynicism as soon as the next election rolls around (see Cleland, Max). So not only would I rather a Democrat in office for policy reasons, but I'd much prefer to deny Republicans a club to beat their domestic opponents with. In any case, with massive suicide bombs erupting in Iraq and Lebanon returning to Syria's comfy embrace, I fear Matt's thesis is wrong anyway. For the moment, at least, it really does look as if freedom is on the retreat.

March 10, 2005 in Democrats, Foreign Policy | Permalink

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» ...Aaaaaand toss from August J. Pollak - xoverboard.com
Ezra wrote a post in response to Blad Plumer's response to Matt Yglesias' post about foreign policy. In it, he alludes to the ever-frequented concept of 9/11 in a parellel universe where Bush was not President during it: The only... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 10, 2005 10:21:19 PM

» ...Aaaaaand toss from August J. Pollak - xoverboard.com
Ezra wrote a post in response to Blad Plumer's response to Matt Yglesias' post about foreign policy. In it, he alludes to the ever-frequented concept of 9/11 in a parellel universe where Bush was not President during it: The only... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 10, 2005 10:23:12 PM

» Democrats and Foreign Policy from CommonSenseDesk
A series of thoughtful discussions of the Dems and their relationship to/with foreign policy starts with Matt Yglesias' column in the American Prospect and continues with Brad Plumer's response to Matt. [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 11, 2005 10:48:07 AM

Comments

Yeah but come on, George W. Bush in 2000 was a special case -- it was obvious he couldn't locate most other countries on a map! The fact that he got even 36 percent approval just proves my thesis. (I kid, I kid...)

Seriously though, good points. Though the problem with this discussion, I suppose, is that public perceptions of foreign policy have shifted frequently, and often in very special ways, over the last 50 years, and don't really lend themselves to general "rules" very easily.

Posted by: Brad Plumer | Mar 10, 2005 7:33:32 PM

Regarding Carter and the failed hostage rescue mission, it's something I tell people all the time. If the helo hadn't crashed and the rescue had worked as planned, Carter would have won in a landslide, and possibly today be hailed as one of the great presidents. Volcker's shock therapy for the US economy had started to kick in between 80-84, and Carter would have gotten the credit he deserved for the turnaround of the economy. The military rescue would have cemented his defense image. The Rose Garden still stands as one of the high points of American foreign policy in the 20th century.

For want of a rotor blade....

Posted by: bunny | Mar 11, 2005 12:36:49 AM

I dunno, Ezra. Somehow, I think if Al Gore had been President in 2001, they would have eaten him alive, whether or not he spent his most important moment reading about a pet goat. Let's face it: Republicans have one hell of an attack machine built up, and they're extremely successful at getting the media to reframe the debate in ways we can't even dream of.

I'm not sure the differences between Kuwait and Kosovo are as great as you feel they are. Different situations to be sure, but calling one "humanitarian" (read: namby-pamby) is really a matter of framing. There were certainly humanitarian appeals prior to the Gulf War (incubator babies.) And even when Clinton bombed Iraq, the opposition didn't cut him any slack. He was accused of "wagging the dog".

I agree in general that foreign policy crises have helped Republicans and lack thereof have hurt Democrats, but I think the right had already used 60s peacenik activism coupled with Jimmy Carter's handling of the hostage situation to cement the idea that Dems are Weak and Republicans are Strong, and I think it would take more than a 9/11 (especially in light of the media apparatus that they've built) to change that perception.

Posted by: Royko | Mar 11, 2005 12:49:36 AM

to build on Royko's comment.. It's not just the crisis, unfortunately. It's the media apparat. The only thing the media would have been screeching after 9/11 on Gore's watch is "IMPEACH!" Cynical but probably true.

I do agree with your point, though, Ezra.

Posted by: Sandals | Mar 11, 2005 1:44:25 AM

What you mean is surely not a foreign policy crisis (in the sense that, say, "should we use armed force to ramp up the Kosovar civil war into a full-scale holocaust?" or "should we look the other way while half a million Rwandans are murdered?" represented foreign policy crises). You are talking about having wars so that favoured politicians can play let's-pretend with uniforms and tall men with stars on their shoulders.

I appreciate your disclaimer, but it still seems to me that this is definitely the wrong way to look at things. If Democrats want to have a reputation for toughness, they should start by being tough enough to win state, congressional and presidential elections, and then proceed to implement principled policies regardless of opposition. If they do this, people will generally suspect that they would be tough enough to fight wars.

I seriously doubt whether Clinton's image would have been enhanced if he had invaded Afghanistan in 1998 or 2000. It certainly wasn't enhanced by the aggression against Serbia in 1999. Frankly, I think you are looking at symptoms rather than at the disease. Which is, unfortunately, itself a common disease in the Democratic Party.

Posted by: MFB | Mar 11, 2005 2:02:25 AM

Had Gore been in office on 911, he would have been universally chastised shortly thereafter for not having prevented it. Bush had the "excuse" that he had only been in office for 9 months, hardly enough time to be up to speed on anything. Gore would have been seen, and rightly at that, as a continuation of the Clinton presidency and would have been held accountable for allowing the attck to happen. But then again, I don't think Gore would have been president on 911 because I think there is a good chance that he would have prevented the attack. Ted Rall, who I suually don't read, wrote a good column about this two years ago. It is an interesting look at the alternate reality of a Gore presidency and seems about right. Worth checking out.

Posted by: Kermit | Mar 11, 2005 3:27:31 AM

"You are talking about having wars so that favoured politicians can play let's-pretend with uniforms and tall men with stars on their shoulders."

Let's not forget one of the more damning things about the Bush administration ever said, though it's been little noted in the general media: Mickey Herskowitz's discussions with Bush in the late 90's.

"According to Herskowitz, George W. Bush’s beliefs on Iraq were based in part on a notion dating back to the Reagan White House – ascribed in part to now-vice president Dick Cheney, Chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee under Reagan. “Start a small war. Pick a country where there is justification you can jump on, go ahead and invade.”" (http://www.gnn.tv/articles/article.php?id=761)

This seems to me to be worse than the likely secondary motivation for invading Iraq, which was war profiteering by Halliburton and the like.


Posted by: Ken C. | Mar 11, 2005 9:49:46 AM

Yeah, I'm agreeing with everybody above. If Gore were in office on 9/11, the headlines on 9/12 would have been calling for his head. Why? That's the difference between patriots and traitors. For the Democrats, it's the greater good. For Republicans, it's simply winning.

Posted by: Karmakin | Mar 11, 2005 10:54:28 AM

Warren Christopher told Clinton at the beginning of his first term that if he did a good job with foreign policy, no one would give him any credit because nothing would happen. So because Clinton ran a competent foreign policy and managed to protect us from terrorism and international disaster while W did precisely the opposite, the public views W as more effective. Through the looking glass, Alice!

Posted by: J Bean | Mar 11, 2005 11:50:54 AM

J Bean

"Clinton ran a competant foreign policy":

Afghansitan
Iraq
Somalia
Israel / Palestine
Northern Ireland
Rwanda
Cuba
Haiti
North Korea
Bosnia
Kosovo

Can anyone say that any of Clinton's foreign policies were a great success?

As to "protect us from terrorism":

USS Cole
East African embassies
WTC 1993
Kolbar Towers? in Saudi Arabia

And when do you think the planning for 9/11 started? On GWB's inauguration day?

Attack Bush all you want - I agree he's made mistakes (though at least he hasn't had his policy decided by focus groups) but please do not make out the Clinton was a success at more than winning elections.

Posted by: Boethius | Mar 11, 2005 2:28:18 PM

J. Bean, that's my first thought: The kind of crisis we're talking about is one that doesn't happen if you're actually a decent president.

Bush had all the warning he needed to prevent 9/11, but he didn't prevent it. Do you really think there would have been a 9/11 if Gore had been in office? I don't.

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