How the Democrats Lost Their Spines

E.J. Dionne writes in today’s Washington Post that “The Democratic Party has a self-image problem.”

Talk to Democrats at every level about the strong position the party is in for this fall’s elections and the conversation inevitably ends with a variation of: “Yeah, if we don’t blow it.” Karl Rove’s greatest victory is how much he has spooked Democrats about themselves.

From there Dionne discusses Democrats and fundraising, but I want to dwell longer on the “self-image problem.” The fact is that the self-image problem didn’t start with Karl; the Dems have had a self-image problem for many years. Karl is brilliant at exploiting it, but he didn’t create it.

Conventional wisdom says that the Dems lost their edge as a party because they went all mushy on foreign policy. Peter Beinart certainly has bought this view:

When John Kerry lost in 2004, I started in my despair reading about the late 1940s, the first years of the Cold War. That was the last time America entered a new era in national security. It started very fast in 1945 and 1946. And it was the last period where the country trusted liberals and Democrats to defend it.

As Will Marshall has pointed out, if you look at all presidential elections since the Vietnam War, the disturbing reality is the Democratic Party has only won in those moments when the country turned inward. Carter won in 1976, when the country turned inward after Vietnam. It was the first election since 1948 when national security was not the issue that people told pollsters they were most concerned about. Then Clinton won in 1992, in the aftermath of the Cold War.

The truth is this: Unless the Democratic Party can change its image on national security, its only realistic hope of winning the White House is the hope that the war on terrorism is a passing phenomenon that will be over in a few years.

There’s some truth to what Beinart says, but it’s not the whole picture. Last week I took apart the conventional wisdom that says George McGovern lost to Richard Nixon by a landslide in 1972 because McGovern was anti-war. As I explained, opposition to the war was possibly one of the least important factors in McGovern’s defeat. The same conventional wisdom says that it is the Dems’ delicate sensibilities about war and the military, and their Neville Chamberlain-like tendencies to appease enemies rather than confront them, that gave Republicans the edge in foreign policy issues ever since. And this, “pundits” like Beinart propose, is why voters flock to Republicans whenever national security is a prominent issue. And it’s why, other “pundits” declare, the Dems must avoid association with antiwar types if they expect to win elections.

As Beinart says, the Narrative that Dems are soft on security goes back to the late 1940s and the beginning of the Cold War. But isn’t it odd that, so soon after World War II, Democrats were under fire for being soft? After all, two Democratic Presidents had just led the nation through World War II. And before WWII, it was right-wing isolationists who wanted to ignore or appease Hitler, while Franklin Roosevelt argued that Hitler was a threat who must be confronted. (There are echoes of this old argument in today’s paleoconservative revisionist history that the war in Europe was unnecessary and that FDR knew about Pearl Harbor in advance and didn’t stop it.)

The notion that Republicans are, somehow, traditionally the party of war and Democrats the party of wusses seems particularly odd when you consider that Poppy Bush (41) was the first Republican president to take the nation into a war worthy of the name since William McKinley . Except for the Gulf War, the big wars of the 20th century — World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam — were joined under the leadership of Democratic presidents — Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson.

In fact, when I was a child the old folks often said that Democrats liked to start wars because wars are good for the economy. I haven’t heard that one in a while.

To understand how Dems went from being warriors to wusses, you must understand how Republicans went from isolationism to imperialism. For background, I urge you to read “Stabbed in the Back!” by Kevin Baker in the June issue of Harper’s. A snip:

In the years immediately following World War II, the American right was facing oblivion. Domestically, the reforms of the New Deal had been largely embraced by the American people. The Roosevelt and Truman administrations—supported by many liberal Republicans—had led the nation successfully through the worst war in human history, and we had emerged as the most powerful nation on earth.

Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow liberal internationalists had sounded the first alarms about Hitler, but conservatives had stubbornly—even suicidally—maintained their isolationism right into the postwar era. Senator Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican,” and the right’s enduring presidential hope, had not only been a prominent member of the leading isolationist organization, America First, and opposed the nation’s first peacetime draft in 1940, but also appeared to be as naive about the Soviet Union as he had been about the Axis powers. Like many on the right, he was much more concerned about Chiang Kai-shek’s worm-eaten Nationalist regime in China than U.S. allies in Europe. “The whole Atlantic Pact, certainly the arming of Germany, is an incentive for Russia to enter the war before the army is built up,” Taft warned. He was against any U.S. military presence in Europe even in 1951.

Of course, by 1951 Republican Senator Joe McCarthy’s “red scare” campaign was in full swing, and McCarthy ranted about the Soviets often enough. But Baker argues persuasively that in the postwar years Republicans saved themselves from irrelevancy by propagating the myth of Yalta. The Yalta agreements forged by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin in 1945 met with widespread approval at first. But then along came Alger Hiss, who had been a junior member of the U.S. delegation at Yalta. Accusations that he was a Soviet spy first emerged about eight months later

[T]he exposure of Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent followed, in relatively rapid succession, by the fall of Czechoslovakia’s coalition government to a Soviet-backed coup, the Soviet attainment of an atomic bomb, and the victory of Mao’s Communists over Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang regime in China, cast the entire policy of containment into doubt. Never mind that the right’s own feckless or muddled proposals for fighting the Cold War would not have ameliorated any of these situations. The right swept them into the memory hole and offered a new answer to Americans bewildered by how suddenly their nation’s global preeminence had been diminished: Yalta.

A growing chorus of right-wing voices now began to excoriate our wartime diplomacy. Their most powerful charge, one that would firmly establish the Yalta myth in the American political psyche, was the accusation that our delegation had given over Eastern Europe to the Soviets. According to “How We Won the War and Lost the Peace,” an essay written for Life magazine shortly before the 1948 election by William Bullitt—a former diplomat who had been dismissed by Roosevelt for outing a gay rival in the State Department—FDR and his chief adviser, Harry Hopkins, were guilty of “wishful appeasement” of Stalin at Yalta, handing the peoples of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states over to the Soviet dictator.

The Right became obsessed with the notion that Hiss had somehow manipulated the conference so that the agreements would favor Stalin. Exactly how a young junior delegate accomplished this feat was never clear, and although righties persist in calling Hiss a spy he was never, in fact, convicted of espionage, but of perjury. And Baker argues that a close look at the Yalta negotiations reveals the myths about Hiss to be absurd. No matter; Yalta became a symbol for perfidy and weak-kneed appeasement on the part of Democrats. From there the Republican Party launched a full-court-press campaign — a “compilation of hysterical charges and bald-faced lies,” Baker writes — against the “weakness” of Democratic foreign policy. Events such as Truman’s dismissal of General MacArthur became new chapters in the Narrative of the Spineless Democrats — charges that fall apart under even moderately casual scrutiny, but which took hold in the American public conscious nonetheless.

The charge from the Right that traitors in the State Department “lost” China to Mao — as if it had been theirs to lose, and the people of China had nothing to do with it — led to a purge of Asia experts. This purge had serious consequences; Henry C K Liu wrote for Asia Times:

Robert McNamara, defense secretary under Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, attributed the Vietnam debacle to the thorough purge of China experts by McCarthyism. He wrote, “The irony of this gap – Asian experts – was that it existed largely because the top East Asian and China experts in the State Department – John Patton Davies Jr, John Stewart Service and John Carter Vincent – had been purged during the McCarthy hysteria of the 1950s. Without men like these to provide sophisticated, nuanced insights, we – certainly I – badly misread China’s objectives and mistook its bellicose rhetoric to imply a drive for regional hegemony.”

And by the 1960s the old charge about “losing” China had taken a toll — “Democrats in particular, like Kennedy and Johnson, feared a right-wing backlash should they give up the fight; they remembered vividly the accusatory tone of the Republicans’ 1950 question, ‘Who lost China?'” Andrew J. Rotter wrote.

So Johnson made the catastrophically bad decision to send combat troops to Vietnam. The war was such a disaster that Johnson chose not to run for a second term in 1968 (as had Truman, because of MacArthur and Korea, in 1952). In the Humphrey-Nixon campaign it seems to me that Nixon was the “peace” candidate, since he was the candidate who promised to end the war. Yet somehow Democratic defeats in 1968 and 1972 are attributed to Democrats taking an antiwar position.

Baker discusses the way the Right “processed” Vietnam at some length. It was, he says, a war the Right had been clamoring for. When it went sour, the Right did not admit that the war in Vietnam had been, fundamentally, a bad idea. Instead, the Nixon Administration and the Republican establishment successfully turned the antiwar movement and “liberal elites” into scapegoats. The antiwar protesters were traitors who were aiding the enemy. That Nixon made this charge stick at the same time he was stumbling around looking for a way out of Vietnam is a testament to his political genius.

Baker also argues that Nixon escalated the Right’s foreign policy campaign into permanent cultural war. Which takes us to our current problem —

On domestic issues as well as ones of foreign policy, from Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queens” through George Wallace’s “pointy-headed intellectuals”; from Lee Atwater’s characterization of Democrats as anti-family, anti-life, anti-God, down through the open, deliberate attempts of Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove to constantly describe opponents in words that made them seem bizarre, deviant, and “out of the mainstream,” the entire vernacular of American politics has been altered since Vietnam. Culture war has become the organizing principle of the right, unalterably convinced as it is that conservatives are an embattled majority, one that must stand ever vigilant against its unnatural enemies—from the “gay agenda,” to the advocates of Darwinism, to the “war against Christmas” last year.

This has become such an ingrained part of the right wing’s belief system that the Bush Administration has now become the first government in our nation’s history to fight a major war without seeking any sort of national solidarity. Far from it. The whole purpose of the war in Iraq—and the “war on terrorism”—seems to have been to foment division and to win elections by forcing Americans to choose between starkly different visions of what their country should be.

Again, I urge you to read the entire Baker article, because it is excellent, and because it puts our current political mess in an entirely different light.

I’m planning another post to tie together Baker’s article with some ideas in my “Don’t Blame McGovern” post from last week to say more about the Democrats’ self-identity problem. I hope to have that post published by tomorrow. Maybe this evening.

Share Button