The Democrats cannot win as hawks

The recent TNR proposal for a hawkish Democratic party is politically wrong, and much more important, it’s wrong on the issue.

Peter Beinart has recently proposed that the Democrats purge Michael Moore and the doves, on the analogy of the post-WWII Democrats who purged the anti-anti-Communists who then founded the short-lived Progressive Party. Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum have responded, and STF’s Dave Johnson has responded to Drum (links below).

This is, of course, exactly what you expect from TNR (and from the DLC, which has also piped up on this question). Ever since the 80’s, the TNR/DLC answer to every question has been “The Democrats have to move to the right”. I don’t think that Beinart’s argument will work politically, and it displays the passivity vis-a-vis the voters that has been characteristic of the Democrats during the last few decades. And second and more important, Beinart’s main point about defense, based on the WWII analogy, is wrong.

Beinart speaks as though Moore were just a single person. But the “anti-war vote” is pretty hefty – 10% or more of the entire electorate, by my guess, and almost all of them Democrats, independents, or third-party voters. In 2000 some of them left the party, and that hurt the Democrats. (At least, Democrats say so every time Nader’s name comes up). In 2004 the ABB argument kept most of them on board. But if the Democrats try to out-hawk the Republicans, the anti-war people won’t know where to turn. I doubt that there will even be a third party this time around; I think that people will just withdraw from the process.

Politically, Beinart and the others misrepresent the state of affairs. The US is not becoming increasingly conservative — it’s becoming increasingly polarized. The 2004 election wasn’t a landslide – it was 51%-49%, and came down to the last state. The Democrats do not have to speak to all of the voters who supported Bush ased on the issues of war, terrorism, and values (about 90% of Bush’s total support). Without enormous changes in the national and global situation Democrats will have a lot of trouble eating into the Republican base — but the same is true for the Republicans and the Democratic base.

But we really don’t need to do that. We only have to convince 2% out of Bush’s 51% to switch sides. Or else, we have to recruit enough new people from the 40+% of non-voters to tip the scale. (And if we could convince 4% out of Bush’s share to switch, we’d have a solid 53%-47% victory…..)

I do not think that the Democrats can win as a war party. Besides the reasons given above, a wartime president has a enormous power to control the agenda, and for many voters the “don’t change horses in midstream” cliché holds — even for those who have serious doubts about the incumbent. (Kerry in fact did try to use the competence argument — “I’ll do about the same thing, but I won’t screw it up” — but that argument is a proven loser. Remember Dukakis?)

So Beinart’s strategy probably isn’t smart politics. I think that this is just another case of Democratic passivity vis-a-vis public opinion (shown most vividly by Clinton and Gore’s pimping on the death penalty in 2000.) Obviously, political candidates have to pay attention to the voters, but the Democrats’ strategy, based mostly on big media buys every four years, has meant that they are very weak between elections — weak both in feet-on-the-ground party-building, and in gaining control of the agenda by defining the issues and changing people’s minds. This passivity is partly because the dominant group in the party has an ideological axe to grind, and partly the result of the freezeout of liberals from the major media. (The latter is something that I believe can only be combatted by the foundation of new media, as I argue here, and as my partner Dave Johnson has been arguing forever.)

But most important, the pro-war arguments are false. We’re in the middle of a hysterical war fever, and this is not really surprising after 9/11 — especially given the fact that a big chunk of the political establishment already wanted war before 9/11. But militant Islam is not on a par with Hitler or Stalin (who, be it remembered, between them controlled all of continental Europe in 1942).

The Muslim world is divided into twenty or more countries which are mostly enemies of one another. Muslims speak between five and ten mutually-unintelligible major languages. Religiously, they belong to two hostile major tendencies, each of which is divided into many sects. None of the Muslim countries has a significant industrial or technical base, and only a few of them have a significant financial base (which in all cases is due entirely to oil rents.) None of the Muslim militaries are powerful, and finally, most of the Muslim governments are not Islamist. And while many individual Muslims have some sympathy for the militants, many do not, and in most cases sympathy does not translate into active support.

The Hitler-Stalin analogy is fake. Furthermore, there’s increasing evidence from Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere that we’re going to get stuck with a long occupation in which Americans increasingly end up functioning as the bad guys. The Iraqi Army and police are, by all accounts, inoperative, and much of the country is unsafe even for armed convoys. Barring the “cut and run” solution that our liberal hawks have been loudly rejecting for the last two years, we’ll be in Iraq for a long time. I don’t think that we need any more Iraqs.

This is not a defensive war, though it’s being sold that way. What we’re really looking at now, as Niall Ferguson recently suggested and as the PNAC people have been saying all along, is an attempt to establish American world domination: an American empire on the model of the British and the Roman empires.

The defensive, anti-terrorist aspect is really a lesser part of the mix and is mostly important as a pretext. (The decision to begin by attacking Iraq proves this). The real plan has never been publicly presented by anyone official, and the voters have been fooled with misinformation and manipulation (e.g., the content-free “wolves” ad – which was very effective with its target audience).

The job of the the Democrats is to un-fool the American people. The slice of the American electorate with fundamental doubts about our bipartisan Middle East war, whatever its size, is not a fringe group. It is in agreement with about 60%-70% of world public opinion. The Beinart-Yglesias proposal for a hawkish Democratic Party which is “credible on defense” amounts to uniting the American people in opposition to most of the rest of the civilized world.

P.S. The phrase “credibility on defense” keeps coming up. What is credibility? As far as I can tell, it’s what Scott Ritter and Hans Blix didn’t have when the Iraq war was being proposed in 2002. As it turned out, they were right on the facts. But they’re still not “credible”, and to my knowledge neither has been rehabilitated and they remain media unpersons. So screw “credibility.”

Kevin Drum’s most recent response

Matt Yglesias’ most recent response

Dave on Drum