TCS Daily

How Democrats Might Try to Win but Shouldn't

By Carroll Andrew - November 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Foreign policy and the war on terror were important issues in the 2004 Presidential campaign, yet they have been largely absent from the post-mortems of the Democrats' defeat. According to the conventional wisdom, because Kerry/Edwards and Bush/Cheney were offering the same short-term policies, with Kerry/Edwards offering better execution and more allies, moderate and even conservative foreign policy-oriented voters were not voting on the basis of ideology or strategic vision. They were participating in a referendum on competence. According to the Dems, voters went too easy on President Bush, not holding him responsible for obvious failings.

This post-campaign analysis suffers from the same flaw that afflicted the Kerry/Edwards campaign. It treats foreign policy as a distraction from other issues. The Democrats have been too quick to ignore the fact that Kerry, Edwards, and the Democratic brain trust seem willing to accept something less than victory as a resolution to the war on terror, if that resolution will allow them to move on to other issues.

Now, charging that the leaders of major American political party are unwilling to pursue victory in war is a serious matter, and I am not suggesting that the national Democratic party advocates surrender. In an armed conflict, however, there are three possible outcomes, victory, defeat, or truce. The temptation to settle for a truce is not a possibility that can be dismissed outright. One national government has already tried to establish a truce with the Islamists. After the March 11 subway bombing in Madrid, Spain agreed to withdraw its troops from Iraq, attempting to implement truce through appeasement. The Kerry/Edwards foreign policy was not this extreme, but Kerry's expressed desire to take us back to a time where terrorism was a "nuisance" near-perfectly described a quest for a truce, status quo ante-bellum.

The refrain of "hunt down and kill the terrorists", ostensibly chosen for its tough-sounding, macho tone, served another purpose. It defined the war on terrorism in very narrow fashion. Who, exactly, was to be hunted and killed? Since Kerry made it clear that he did not consider Iraq to be a part of the war on terror, he signaled that "the terrorists" were only terrorists operationally involved in September 11, perhaps only terrorists currently residing in Afghanistan. Kerry, in effect, defined September 11 down from a declaration of war by the Islamists against America, not all the way down to the level of a pure law-enforcement problem, but down to the level of a border incursion by a rogue enemy unit. When the specific unit responsible for September 11 had been dealt with, it was not inconceivable that a Kerry administration would act as if America's conflict with Islamist terrorism had ended.

Kerry's major foreign policy theme was adding alliance partners, but the alliances were means to unspoken ends. If, according to Kerry, Iraq was the "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time", then what was the alternative? How would he pursue victory, i.e. how would he take the battle to the enemy, and neutralize their ability to attack? The electorate never received clear answers to these questions. Kerry never laid out a long-term plan for winning. He seemed willing to pursue a defensive truce instead, i.e. accept the existence of a mortal enemy, and not move against them unless they attacked first.

The lack of clarity with regard to a victory strategy resulted from domestic political considerations-the nearly evenly divided electorate and the Democratic electoral base. For two Presidential election cycles, the Democrats have shown themselves to be tantalizingly close to a majority of the popular vote, so close that it is reasonable for the Democrats to base their electoral strategies around the idea of stealing just a few votes from the other side. However, implementing these strategies depends on adding votes without alienating any significant chunk of their existing 48-49% coalition.

And that is a problem for the Democrats. In addition to principled, liberal non-interventionists and apolitical non-interventionists who prefer that the US avoid any form of conflict, the current Democratic coalition also includes a hard-left, anti-war, America-is-an-evil-force-in-the-world segment. In terms of numbers, there are more moderates, but the hard left is more rigid in its demands on a candidate. Appeal to moderates by pressing more aggressively for a victory in the war, and the hard left stays home on election day, or maybe votes Nader, or votes Green. The Kerry campaign understood this. That is why a Sister Souljah moment with the radical left, potentially bolstering Kerry's support among moderate and pro-war voters, never materialized. In the end, many swing voters were not sure if Kerry's foreign-policy heart lied closer to the center or closer to the left.

Politics involves more than forming coalitions from immutable blocs of voters. It also involves changing minds within blocs. Moderate minds are easier to change than minds at the extremes. One future strategy available to the Democrats for attracting moderate, foreign-policy oriented voters-without alienating the wide array of doves in the their base-is to argue that impersonal, historical trends make the war on terror unwinnable. They could present the Bush administration's pursuit of victory as unnecessarily confrontational and dangerous, and argue that some form of open-ended truce is the only responsible way to bring about an "end" to the war on Islamist terror. This plan would not be very different from their strategy of 2004. The danger is that, if enough people are repeatedly told by their leaders that the enemy is unbeatable, they may start to believe it.


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