The Fear Democrats Can Jettison

By Peter Beinart
Sunday, July 6, 2008

In "The Best and the Brightest," David Halberstam chronicles Lyndon Johnson's absolute terror of appearing soft on communism. Having seen fellow Democrats destroyed in the early 1950s because they tolerated a Communist victory in China, Johnson swore that he would not let the story replay itself in Vietnam, and thus pushed America into war. The awful irony, Halberstam argues, is that Johnson's fears were unfounded. The mid-1960s were not the early 1950s. The Red Scare was over. But because it lived on in Johnson's mind, he could not grasp the realities of a new day.

In this way, 2008 is a lot like 1964. On foreign policy, many Democrats live in terror of being called soft, of provoking the kind of conservative assault that has damaged so many of their presidential nominees since Vietnam. But that fear reflects memories of the past, not the realities of today. When Democrats worry about the backlash that awaits Barack Obama if he defends civil liberties, or endorses withdrawal from Iraq, or proposes unconditional negotiations with Iran, they are seeing ghosts. Fundamentally, the politics of foreign policy have changed.

There are two big reasons. First, Americans are not particularly scared, at least not about military threats. Since Vietnam, the more frightening the world has appeared, the better Republican foreign policy attacks have worked. In 1979, the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan suddenly made the world look much more dangerous and contributed mightily to Ronald Reagan's defeat of Jimmy Carter. Similarly, in 2004, the trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks was still fresh. According to exit polls, 19 percent of voters said that terrorism was their top issue, and they overwhelmingly voted for George W. Bush.

Today, by contrast, the share of Americans citing terrorism as their primary concern hovers around 4 percent. Unless dramatic overseas events intervene, Americans will feel significantly less afraid in November than they did four years ago. In that way, the election of 2008 will be less like 1980 or 2004 than like the election of 1976, which took place after Vietnam and amid detente with the Soviet Union, or the election of 1992, which came after the Cold War ended. In both of those elections, Republican foreign policy attacks fell flat.

The other big change is that Bush and John McCain have abandoned the foreign policy center. Every time Republicans have successfully painted Democrats as too dovish, they have taken care not to appear too hawkish themselves. In 1952, Americans saw Dwight Eisenhower as the candidate of foreign policy strength. But it was his pledge to end an unpopular war in Korea that cemented Ike's victory. Similarly, in 1968, Richard Nixon linked Hubert Humphrey to student radicals but also promised to end America's involvement in Vietnam. By the time he sought reelection in 1972, he had partially succeeded: U.S. ground troops were virtually gone.

Reagan followed a similar strategy. As the 1984 election approached, he withdrew U.S. troops from an unpopular peacekeeping mission in Lebanon and made a high-profile effort to restart arms talks with the Soviets. Reagan advisers such as Chief of Staff James Baker believed that they could paint Walter Mondale as weak on national security only if Reagan himself did not appear too bellicose. Their strategy rested on convincing voters that while Reagan had made America strong, he would neither launch nor sustain a costly war.

If Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan followed the same script, George W. Bush has torn it up. In late 2006, James Baker -- as chairman of the Iraq Study Group -- urged Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. In other words, he offered Bush essentially the same advice he had given Reagan: liquidate an unpopular military intervention, hold the political center and marginalize your opponents on the left. But that is exactly what Bush -- with McCain's enthusiastic support -- has opted not to do. Bush's decision in early 2007 to increase, rather than reduce, U.S. forces in Iraq represents a fundamental deviation from the political strategy that has brought Republicans victory in years past.

Because Americans are less afraid and because Republicans have abandoned the foreign policy center, Democrats need not worry that Obama will suffer the fate of George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale or John Kerry. He won't lose because he looks weak. The greater danger is that he will change positions in a bid to look strong -- as he recently did on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- and come across as inauthentic and insincere. As Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin have noted, the Democrats' biggest political liability is not that Americans believe they are too liberal but rather that they believe that Democrats don't stand for anything at all. On foreign policy, Obama has a chance to change that: to articulate a vision based on the principles of global cooperation and human dignity that animated Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. He shouldn't be deterred by fears of being called soft. Those fears are the echoes of a bygone age.

Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a monthly column for The Post. A longer version of this column appears in the summer issue of World Affairs.

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