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October 14, 2005

You Have Got To Be Kidding Me

I thought Noam Scheiber was joking on this. Apparently not:

Moderates must insist, à la Galston and Kamarck, that Democrats won't win back the White House unless they convince voters to trust them on national security, which means making the war on terrorism not just the party's top priority but its central preoccupation in 2008. We're not just talking about calling for a larger military, but something dramatic to signify the shift--like a plan to strike an Iranian or North Korean nuclear facility if need be. Moderates must also maintain that Democrats can't afford to lose ground among swing voters by taking hard-line positions on abortion and gay marriage, though the basic right to an abortion and civil rights for homosexuals should remain central Democratic positions. In return, moderates would endorse an ambitious domestic policy agenda, the centerpiece of which would be universal health insurance but which would also include revisiting nafta and intense opposition to K Street-sponsored legislation like tort and bankruptcy reform.

Dude. We tried this already. Go ask Lyndon Johnson how well it worked.

Update: Maybe this needs a fuller rebuttal. Since my colleague Matt gave it a semi-approving citation, there's a terrifying chance that someone, somewhere, is taking it seriously. And we can't have that. So let's say it simply: this idea is insane. And it's insane in the Einsteinian sense of the word, as in doing the same thing twice while expecting different results. Kennedy got us into Vietnam because he was worried about looking weak, and Johnson accelerated our involvement for the exact same reason. He figured that The Great Society couldn't go off if its planner was deposed for being too soft on Communism, so he'd better level IndoChina to be on the safe side.

It didn't work. Indeed, not only didn't it work, the schism it created destroyed the Democratic party's national security credentials for a generations. Eugene McCarthy and later, George McGovern, were direct results of Johnson's decision, and they collectively did the party's foreign policy standing more damage than any red baiters ever could have. And, in doing that, they helped create Reagan and doom the the Democratic party's social projects for a generation.

That's what happens when you take a party fundamentally skeptical of military solutions and then force it to support a plan everybody knows to be a bad idea in order to protect a political flank. The bad idea blows up, the underlying tensions busts forth, the party looks fully incompetent, and all the things Democrats are strong on are quickly forgotten. So forgetting all the quotidian concerns -- we don't have enough money for these wars, we don't have the manpower, they wouldn't accomplish anything, etc. -- it's simply bad political advice, no matter how intuitive it may appear.

In fact, Scheiber clearly misread Kamarck and Galston, who quite convincingly argue that Democrats have mistaken foreign policy for an issue-based arena, when in reality what wins the day are a candidate's personality traits, which voters mentally translate into rough approximations of how the candidate would fight a war. The real argument of the paper was that:

Democratic candidates have to establish a bond of trust with the electorate that is based as much on character and integrity as policy agendas and issue papers. We believe that in presidential elections, which pose the most personal political choices voters ever make, this personality test is the most important of all. We summarize it in three questions, which are not ours but rather the electorates’: Is the candidate a person of strength, with core convictions and the ability to act on them through challenges and criticism? Is the candidate a person of integrity, who displays consistency over time, who tells the truth, and whose words and deeds coincide? And: is the candidate a person of empathy, who understands and cares about people like us? In American national politics, candidates who appear cold, calculating, vacillating, or elitist rarely succeed.

The conclusion, then, should not be that Democrats must disingenuously promise to follow a bad plan of action because it makes them look tough, but that they should nominate someone tough enough to keep the electorate's confidence without pledging to embark on idiotic, dangerous adventures. Kerry, resume aside, didn't come off as tough. Others will. But Scheiber's idea is neither tough nor smart, it'll just make the candidate who proposes it look stupid and then, in the unlikely event that he's elected, lead to a foreign affairs crisis that'll fracture and destroy the Democratic party for a generation. As I said the first time: we tried this before. It didn't work. To do it again and expect anything different, well, we know what that's called.

October 14, 2005 | Permalink


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Tracked on Nov 3, 2005 9:46:27 AM



I hate to comment if I don't have anything to add, but I just have to say...you're exactly right. Exactly, exactly right. Thank you.

Posted by: J.C. | Oct 14, 2005 1:06:05 PM

Which McCarthy was Johnson responsible for?

Posted by: TJ | Oct 14, 2005 1:10:13 PM

Never mind, I remember, now.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 14, 2005 1:12:58 PM

The fact (damned inconvenient things, those pesky facts) is that we are fighting in the wrong place with the wrong weapons.

What progressives need to point out is that this 'war' will never be won with the weapons of war, but we could make a lasting difference if we were to use the weapons of peace. Now, what we need to figure out now is how to make sure Halliburton gets a cut on any peace expenditure.

Posted by: stumpy | Oct 14, 2005 1:17:38 PM

Very well said.
Another thing I picked up from Kamarck & Galston's paper was that the issues voters cited as most important are those that are perceived as critical problems at the time; Dem candidates tended to highlight strength on issues that were percieved as solved or no longer critical.
I don't think American voters view Iran or N. Korea as a critical problem - it's the neocons who do.

Posted by: CParis | Oct 14, 2005 1:23:24 PM

I say we vacate Montana and nuke it just to show the North Koreans that we are full-on fucking nuts.

Posted by: norbizness | Oct 14, 2005 1:35:03 PM

And anyway, if there's somewhere in the policy arena where Dems should run to the right, it shouldn't be Iran or North Korea, which would look disengenuous and have bad consequences.

It should be Pakistan, a "strong ally in the war on terror" that has given us minimal cooperation in capturing Al-Qaeda leaders and pardoned a man who sold nuclear secrets on the black markets.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Oct 14, 2005 1:51:46 PM

I agree with Norbizness. It would work even better if the Dem candidate proposing this during the campaign (say, in a commercial or at a debate) does the Mel Gibson "Lethal Weapon" googly eyes thing while talking about it.

Posted by: Stephen | Oct 14, 2005 2:10:44 PM

So long as 'tough' is operationally defined by the mass media as 'willing to off brown people in their untold thousands, on little or no evidence beyond praying to the wrong God', there's no point in trying to look 'tough'.

I'd rather lose.

I'd love to see national health care, or a serious response to global warming, but if to get dealt in we have as a party to ante whole hecatombs of dead Asians, I can wait.

This bargain that TNR proposes is beyond corrupt -- it is profoundly evil.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Oct 14, 2005 2:20:47 PM

Unfortunately, Galston and Kamarck seem to assume that campaigns operate in a vaccuum, and that the presentation or definition of a candidate's "character" is entirely up to the candidate's and party's control. With the evidence of Republican sliming efforts against Clinton, Gore and Kerry behind us, I think we can reasonably assume that trying to ensure we "portray" certain characteristics in our candidate is likely to have pretty uncertain results.

Secondly, they say:

"is the candidate a person of empathy, who understands and cares about people like us? In American national politics, candidates who appear cold, calculating, vacillating, or elitist rarely succeed."

How about Nixon?

Posted by: Bulworth | Oct 14, 2005 2:24:30 PM

I agree with you completely, Ezra. Man, some people can't wait to get their war on, can they?

Posted by: maurinsky | Oct 14, 2005 2:54:42 PM

Good points, except the last swipe at Kerry. The Democrats lost the election for many reasons, and some of them had to do with Kerry of course. But he is not responsible for all things bad and he wasn't even a bad choice, particularly on the National Security front he was chosen for.

The one time in the entire election when the electorate was able to take him seriously with fox-filtering was the National Security Debate. And he wiped the floor with Bush. Which is exactly what Democrats wanted, the ability to put some up beside this guy and poke holes in his argument without seeming unpatriotic. Compare that to Edwards' performance at the Veep debate (piddling).

Will people just get over it and accept the if John Edwards, Wesley Clark, or Bill Clinton were the nominee and had to deal with: incumbent, gay marriage votes, inability to use Congress to propose policy, 9/11 grandstanding, and the difficulty of dealing with a president during wartime, we still would have lost?

Posted by: Tony Vila | Oct 14, 2005 5:04:38 PM

Well, your point about party disunity is well taken. Like, I was there during the fifties and sixties, so I do not think a militaristic progressism is insanity.

What is insane is thinking we are going to get Universal Health Care, retain choice, return to fiscal sanity and economic justice, do major electoral and campaign reform with a 5-man House Majority, a couple net moderate Senators, and maybe even with just the Presidency.

You will get nothing. Nothing. But another flip to an even more reactionary government.

I want +100 House Seats, +20 Senate seats, a liberal President. No, I need those things. I cannot bear watching Roe and SS and Medicare go down.

In the 50's the Democrats had Texas and a 90% marginal rate. You tell me how to get them back.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 14, 2005 5:19:39 PM

"And, in doing that, they helped create Reagan and doom the the Democratic party's social projects for a generation."

And you can't exactly blame the Democrats losing the South on both the civil rights initiatives and the militarism of Kennedy and Johnson. That doesn't make a lot of sense, since the South is the most militaristic section of the country.

OTOH, I can say that we might have had a lot better chances in the South after Johnson if we had made a deal involving civil rights and social programs with continuing support for a strong active military.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 14, 2005 5:39:55 PM

Dale Carnegie Yes Dr Strangelove No

A link in support of Ezra; being a generous guy who is reality-based and is trying to seriously approach these questions listening to all sides.

We can win Bubba in Alabama with the way of the Yaqui and Tibetans. No. You win Bubba by blowing stuff up good.

And will y'all just forget about the Presidency? I don't care. It is garbage, it is nothing, it is worthless without control of Congress.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 14, 2005 5:49:10 PM

Time for Ezra to come along and say:"Not one coherent argument." I have other arguments, internationalist,etc....for example I follow Thomas Barnett on Rim-World strategy, where without coincidence Avian Flu turned into Human Flu today. And I can be brutish in my arguments. But we will stick to political.

Who do you think Johnson had to "look strong" for? It was a grotesque landslide in 64, before most of the legislation gor passed. Yes, it was strong on defense for his re-election, but there were also Northern Republicans for the civil rights bills and whomever he could get for the social programs. Remember what the Democratic Party was in the 60's. Dixiecrats and Union Bosses. Johnson didn't screw it up, he made a choice, he made sacrifices. If you live in some Turtledoveland where we could get all those good things out of the sixties without the Vietnam War you have been reading too many Saint Bobby hagiographies.

Matt said today he would rather have "Satan's domestic policy." Well, screw you Matt, my mother got seven additional years due to Medicare and Medicaid and I ain't giving them up. Those programs were worth Vietnam.

But at least Matt recognizes that it is a choice. At least Matt doesn't try to escape responsibility. Let me clue you...kid...you go into that voting booth and pull the lever and people are gonna die. You are simply choosing who will die. All us adults have blood on our hands.
Loved your column on Bush at Tapped. You changed my mind on his politics and character after 8 years of watching him. You insipid little twit.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 14, 2005 7:12:34 PM

Blarg. This is awful. By the way, I can't make your trackback work, so here is my take.

Posted by: Rob | Oct 14, 2005 7:20:14 PM

What is it with this delusion that the Dems are currently taking a hard-line pro-gay marriage position? Is there the slightest evidence for this? Didn't Kerry oppose gay marriage?

Posted by: William Burns | Oct 14, 2005 8:56:09 PM

The "war on terror" will never, ever, ever be a winner for the Democrats. You simply can't out-jingo the GOP, and if they did, would they still be preferable to them?

The "war on terror" is utter B.S.; no such thing exists (except in GOP propaganda). I realize, however, that stating this would not be politically feasible for the Democrats. But they should try to do the next best thing: move the debate as far away from terrorism and war as possible. War/terrorism is the ONLY issue on which the GOP has an advantage; with everything else, the country by and large agrees with the Democratic position. So why in the name of all that is holy should they make terrorism their "central preoccupation"?

Kerry focused on foreign policy and it didn't work, because people who vote based on their fear of terrorists blowing them up (even though they live in Boise, Idaho) are not exactly analyzing the situation rationally, and so they will vote for whoever they perceive as more bloodthirsty, and let's face it - GOPers are second to no one when it comes to bloodthirstiness! Forget those people; we won't get them, just like we won't get the fetus fetishists. You can't please everyone, and arranging policies in order to chase voers who won't give you the time of day no matter what is just stupid.

If the election is about war, they win. If it's about the economy, we win. It's (almost) that simple.

Posted by: Dadahead | Oct 14, 2005 10:49:32 PM

P.S. -

I'd like to add that I don't mean to take a swipe at Kerry; I actually think he ran a good campaign as far as it goes. In a way, the focus on foreign policy was out of his control, and he did his best to turn it into an advantage. Ultimately, this just wasn't possible, and that's going to be true for any Dem, even General Clark.

Posted by: Dadahead | Oct 14, 2005 10:54:43 PM

You want to look tough on national security without having to worry about bombing a random Middle Eastern nation? (And maybe even put the screws on Pakistan too?) It's simple, all it takes is one sentence.

"You have my word that by this time in 2012, we will have Osama bin Laden, Aywan al-Zawahiri, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in custody and on trial."

Posted by: Dustbin Of History | Oct 15, 2005 12:22:44 AM

The only thing Kamarck & Galston got right was that personality is a huge issue. Most presidential elections are decided by people who ignore politics and policy for 3 years and 11 months and then try to make up their minds based on 30 second attack ads. At least 20 percent of the electorate have absolutely no idea what they are voting for. Half the voters don't even know who their congressman is. Studies like Kamarck & Galston's are a total waste of time. Brad Delong has Paul Krugman's latest article which is appropriate for this thread http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2005/10/questions_of_ch.html.

Posted by: Marv Toler | Oct 15, 2005 8:45:15 AM

Except Gene (the good McCarthy) and McGovern were right. We could have achieved the same policy outcome in 1968 than we in fact did in 1975: the North Vietnamese taking over Saigon and renaming it Ho Chi Ming City.

"the schism it created destroyed the Democratic party's national security credentials for a generations. Eugene McCarthy and later, George McGovern, were direct results of Johnson's decision, and they collectively did the party's foreign policy standing more damage than any red baiters ever could have"

And you would back this up with what? The Contract with America had just about nothing to do with projecting American force overseas. Hell even Bush campaigned against 'Nation Building'. The reflexive Republican position is isolationism and locking down the borders and letting the rest of the world go to hell. If anything the Democratic Party was criticized was being too aggressive. There is a well known story that Madeline Albright once asked Colin Powell "What use is this big military if you never use it" or words to that effect. Republicans reeled back in horror.

Someone is turning the last thirty years of foreign policy on its head. Just because the PNAC says it doesn't make it true. Just back away from the bar and stop drinking the kool aid, after awhile your head will clear. Just like it (ultimately) did on the Mess-in-Potamia.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Oct 15, 2005 9:06:20 AM

The only thing Kamarck & Galston got right was that personality is a huge issue.

I have a working theory that says that the cooler candidate always wins. That is, whoever is perceived as "cool" by more people will win the election.

Witness: Bush (the arrogant cowboy) seen as cooler than Kerry (the akward aristocrat); Bush cooler than Gore (the overly earnest dweeb); Clinton cooler than almost any other politician; Bush I cooler than Dukakis (entirely by default; Bush I rates about a zero on the cool meter, but Dukakis was like a negative fifty, the stupid tank picture alone costing him at least twenty cool points); Reagan cooler than Mondale and Carter; etc. etc.

Posted by: Dadahead | Oct 15, 2005 3:37:32 PM

I don't know if anyone else commented on this, but the ravenous, frothing sows over at TNR have been sucking on the military/industrial garbege chute as far back as I can remember. I want to propose a scenario: what better way to separate the truly committed progressives from the Dems, to dilute the Democratic Party into a pale nothingness, to further entrench an increasingly aggressive imperialistic mindset, to forever bury any hope of substantial progress in this country, than the seemingly "crazy" spewage that TNR (Beinart, Scheiber et al.) regularly effulges? Matt Taibbi wrote a necessary series of articles on the DLC and their pals over at TNR for The New York Press awhile back; look 'em up, and see who is truly responsible for the latter-day downfall of the Dems. Ultimately, this is rhetoric, and it must be treated as such; even if Sceiber is serious (and I doubt it) it is meant as a linguistic mind bomb to scramble the dialogue and create confusion. Just like Coulter, only much, much more insidious. These folks are scum, of the highest order, and they can hide behind their neo-liberal, real-politik bullshit all they want; they are professional obfuscators, crotch-attentive servants of the power elite, and what gives it away is their anomalous yapping, their lone dog braying at their own well-coiffed tails, knowing full well that just the sound of their pathetic yips will create a distracting white noise meant to monkeywrench any serious, rational discussion or debate. Sycophantic, amoral, and very well paid. What a country.

Posted by: Dirty Dog | May 2, 2006 12:09:35 AM

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