TCS Daily

Confronting the Wimp Factor, Part 1

By Noah Shachtman - June 10, 2003 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on the Democratic Party and national security issues.

Wimps. UN-lovers. Dixie-Chick-listening, flag-burning, Susan Sarandon wannabes.

That's the popular image of the Democratic party, says former Clinton State Department staffer Tim Bergreen. And unless it changes, fast, George Bush is going to pummel the Democratic presidential candidate almost as badly as he hammered Saddam.

After dominating the '02 elections, national security is poised to become the biggest issue in the '04 campaign. And when voters were asked in a recent poll which party they trust to "keep America strong/make sure U.S. defenses are strong," they give the GOP a 57-17% advantage.

Bergreen and former National Security Council humanitarian affairs director Steven J. Naplan have assembled a small band of young, ex-Clintonites devoted to countering this view, and to carving out pro-defense positions for the Democrats. But before they can begin wrestling with Republicans on national defense, Bergreen, Naplan, and the Democrats for National Security have to pick a fight in their own party.

Bergreen says, "We're going to have to drag Democrats kicking and screaming into understanding" defense issues.

To some activists - especially those who came of age in the Vietnam era - any embrace of the military is just plain icky. "Why don't you just become a Republican" has been a consistent rejoinder to Bergreen's defense pleas.

Josh Marshall summarized the problem nicely, in a New York Post article last fall:

"It's not that the Democrats are too dovish or too hawkish or even that they don't have good policies. The problem is that, in a critical sense, they don't really have any policies. Or, rather, their policies are geared less to a unified vision of military affairs and national defense than to avoiding political problems at home. So when it comes to defense (as opposed to foreign policy), Democrats tend to be reactive and tactical. Period."

Around the time that article ran, Bergreen begged the chief of staff of a senior Democratic leader in Congress to focus more on defense. Sorry, came the reply. "Those aren't the issues that interest my boss."

Many of the Democratic presidential candidates don't seem any more engaged. Dick Gephardt's website doesn't even have a section on defense. John Edwards and John Kerry's online offices have pages on the homeland security issue, but that's it.

For decades, the Democrats were the more muscular party, Bergreen reminds anyone that'll listen. FDR, Harry Truman, JFK - they all were staunch supporters of military action. The Republicans were the isolationists, carping about all those "Democrat wars," like Bob Dole did during the famous 1976 vice presidential debate.

But so far, it's been a slow process to get current Democrats to, as Naplan put it, "express their inner hawks."

While a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed Bergreen co-wrote with former Gore campaign chief Donna Brazile has generated some buzz, Democrats for National Security is still a budgetless group working on borrowed time.

All may not be lost, however. In current administration's "go-it-alone" policy of international relations - and the Democrats natural inclination to play nicely with other countries - Bergreen and others see a political opening. While the Bushies seem intent on dissing the rest of the world, voters have consistently said that they'd rather cooperate with other nations on attacking terrorism, slowing the spread of nuclear weapons, and rebuilding Iraq. There's a strong security argument for multi-lateralism, if a Democrat can articulate it. (More on this in a piece later this week.)

But Bergreen's not even sure a Democratic candidate can take advantage of this angle in the upcoming election. Democrat politicians have been viewed as so effete by the public that almost anything that comes out of their mouths sounds like French. In the 2000 election, Al Gore, who enlisted for Vietnam, was walloped on military issues by Bush, who sat out the war. Georgia Senator Max Cleland lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam. But he was successfully portrayed in the 2002 election as anti-American by his Republican opponent. Current Democratic Congressional chiefs, like the watery Tom Daschle and Nancy Pelosi, haven't done much to buff up that image.

"As much as I'd like to beat Bush in '04, this is about the long term," he said. "The damage is so great here that it can't be fixed in one campaign cycle."

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