Conventional wisdom is usually oversimplified and distorted - if not outright wrong, but when it comes to the Democratic Party’s strengths and weaknesses it is especially so. The cable talking heads are quick to tell us that Democrats are automatically disadvantaged in national security debates, burdened with the need to prove their patriotism and demonstrate their willingness (eagerness?) to resort to violence. After President Bush followed Bill Clinton’s eight years of relative peace with eight years of bellicose warmongering, it’s frustrating to find that many Beltway wise men still propagate such ridiculous standards.
Despite Americans’ exasperation with such an aggressive foreign policy, the creeping insinuation is that military issues are still Republican territory. Discussing the conflict in Georgia on “Meet the Press” this summer, David Gregory proclaimed “nuance doesn’t work for Democrats.” Earlier in the year, John McCain’s strategist Charlie Black said his candidate was helped by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, and that another terrorist attack on U.S. soil “certainly would be a big advantage.”
That such nonsense goes largely uncontested is a testament to how pervasive this logic has become. A president who sees only black and white mires American troops in a bloody foreign war, but Democrats have to be wary of nuance.
Democrats have made several attempts to shore up their supposed lack of connection to the military, with varying levels of success. In 2004 they nominated the veritable war hero Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., heavily decorated for his service in Vietnam and still carrying shrapnel in his leg, only to find the GOP smear merchants distorted his record into a weakness.
Many would-be presidential nominees tried to showcase their strengths in Congress, abetting the rush to war and endlessly financing the resulting quagmire. Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s votes to authorize war in Iraq and saber rattle with Iran may have cost her the presidency. Instead of listening to a public clamoring for peace, she accepted the empty stereotype that Democrats (and especially Democratic women) running for office must avoid the “squeamish” label at all costs. Ditto for virtually all the other presidential candidates in 2004 and 2008.
Even presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, D-Ill, who was rewarded by voters for his courage and judgment in opposing the Iraq war and pledging diplomacy with our adversaries, sometimes gives in to the pressure to aggressively posture. He promised to bomb terrorist targets in Pakistan without that government’s permission, and declared that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel - both lines that even many conservatives wont cross (he later backtracked on the latter statement, allowing that Jerusalem’s fate will be decided by the Israelis and Palestinians).
So what are Democrats to do? First, stop cowering. Capitulating to Republicans on defense issue after defense issue doesn’t look tough or trustworthy-if anything it reinforces the criticism. Democrats like Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who passionately defend a common sense foreign policy win their constituents’ respect. There’s a reason U.S. troops abroad donated six times as much money to Obama as they did to McCain. Democrats who try to act like Republicans lose (like Al Wynn) or are mocked for their fecklessness (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi).
Second, have some pride. Democratic presidents shouldn’t name Republicans to top military positions like Secretary of Defense, because it broadcasts to the public that Democrats aren’t qualified for national security leadership. Third, stop legitimizing pundits who spout these memes. If Democrats can’t forcefully attack a deceitful premise, the winner by default will be Republicans who want to blindly attack other countries.