Lawrence Kaplan thinks the Democrats are making a grave error this campaign season.

Rather than claim the mantle of Truman, John F. Kennedy or even Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential field lately seems to be taking its foreign policy cues from the New York Review of Books. There is, to begin with, Sen. John Kerry, who claims the president “misled every one of us” into backing the war in Iraq–a claim echoed by Sen. Bob Graham–and who still cannot decide whether he supported the effort. Then there is Howard Dean, surging in the polls and unsure whether Iraq is better off without a genocidal maniac in power, along with Dennis Kucinich, whose campaign signature is a proposal to create a “Department of Peace.” As doubts over weapons shade into doubts about the virtue of the war itself, prominent Democrats have even begun to predict another Vietnam in the making.

Before following Dr. Dean any further down this road, party leaders would do well to cast a glance backward, for this is hardly the first time they have traveled there. The transformation of the party of Truman into the party of McGovern began, of course, in the jungles of Vietnam. By 1972, the conviction that American power was tainted, marred by deceitful use in a “criminal” war, prompted the Democratic presidential nominee to demand that America “come home” from the world. And while such candor tended to be the exception rather than the norm–among others, Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan directly challenged the isolationism that had seized the party’s ranks–a barely concealed suspicion of American power lingered in Democratic foreign policy salons for the next two decades. For the likes of Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis, what had begun as opposition to the war in Vietnam had, by the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, hardened into a reflexive opposition to the use of force.

This is an interesting point and one often missed by those without a long-term view. The Democrats have a long history as a strong national security party, with Democrat presidents, Wilson and Roosevelt, leading the way in the two world wars, Truman in Korean, and Kennedy and Johnson into Vietnam. Indeed, they were rather fierce Cold Warriors during the 1950s and most of the 1960s.

Once this transformation happened, starting with the 1968 nomination of George McGovern, the Democrats went on a rather long losing streak: Nixon, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Reagan, Bush 41. Only Jimmy Carter among those was a Democrat, and it took a bad economy, Watergate, and an incredibly weak Republican candidate for him to eek out a very narrow victory.

Kaplan then notes, as I have freqently, that the end of the Cold War changed this dynamic, with Bill Clinton beating a popular wartime president and the GOP losing its big edge in national security:

The end of the Cold War had the opposite effect on the GOP, which counted on the 20-point advantage Republicans traditionally enjoyed on national security matters. During the ’90s, though, national security barely registered among the concerns of voters. A 1995 Times Mirror poll found that only 9% of respondents identified defense and foreign policy as the most important issues of the day, a sharp decline from the 42% who put national security at the top in 1980. Indeed, opinion surveys on the eve of the 1996 election showed that Americans actually trusted Mr. Clinton to do a better job of handling foreign affairs than his Republican opponent.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, however, voters appear to have reverted to Cold War type. During the 2002 midterm election cycle, polls found that most voters rated national security as the country’s top priority, even more important than the economy. And as defense and foreign policy issues have re-emerged, so too has the Republican advantage. Hence, numerous recent surveys have shown that once again Americans trust Republicans over Democrats on national security issues, often by a margin of 3 to 1. So much so that no less a war hero than Georgia’s Sen. Max Cleland, who left three limbs behind in Vietnam, succumbed to the charge of being insufficiently hawkish in the 2002 election. True, the economy will play a crucial role in the 2004 presidential election. But, as Kerry adviser Chris Lehane has put it, “To get to that issue, you need to satisfy [voters’] expectation and desire that you can handle national security.”

Alas, with the exception of Joe Lieberman, John Edwards and the Democratic Leadership Council, the party has done a pitiful job of satisfying that expectation. The failure could exact a steep price from Democrats on Election Day. Polls still show that a majority believes the war in Iraq was justified, that the administration did not mislead the public, that Mr. Bush has handled the situation in Iraq well. They even reveal a willingness to contemplate military action against Iran and North Korea that puts voters ahead of the Bush team itself. Not surprisingly, then, despite the economy, the president still enjoys approval ratings of 60% plus. If the Democratic Party intends to run against a popular war, its leaders might wish to recall the lesson of a Democrat who ran against an unpopular war. He lost 49 states.

I don’t see that happening again, even if the Democrats run a Kucinich-Sharpton ticket. “Terrorism” isn’t as daunting as the Red Menace. Still, I agree that this tack, which is popular among the Democrat nominating electorate, is a loser in a general election. And “running to the left in the primaries and to the center in the general election” won’t work in an age where every utterance is on videotape. We’ll be hearing these clips over and over in Republican ads–along with pictures of Bush in his flight suit.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Leroy says:

    small correction, McGovern in 1972, it was HHH in 1968