Monday, March 28, 2005
Speaking of George Kennan (or not): earlier in the month, I made a flip comment that Peter Beinart is "delusional" to think that his strategy of Cold-War-liberalism-updated-for-the-age-of-Islamist-terrorism is the ticket back to majority status for the Democrats. Vietpundit legitimately asked in the comments why I think so. I started to answer in the "comments" section but my answer got so long I gave up and decided to make it a post.
(And, now that my comments have mysteriously vanished, I'm glad I did!)
Let me dispose of one potential confusion up front. You can construe Beinart's strategy narrowly as contriving a "Sister Souljah" moment vis-a-vis Michael Moore and his ilk. To the extent that you do that, I agree that Beinart's strategy is not only reasonable but quite necessary, albeit probably insufficient.
But I don't think it's correct to construe his strategy narrowly. Beinart does not simply want to have the next Democratic candidate take pot-shots at anti-American academics or Hollywood types, nor is he simply talking about changing the tone. He is advocating a set of foreign policy ideas, and thinks that implementing these ideas will be crucial to bringing the Democratic Party back to power. That's what I think is delusional.
Beinart's idea boils down to an analogy between Truman's day and our own. I think that analogy is strained on many levels. The part that Beinart focuses on is Communism and Islamist terrorism as analogous threats and challenges. Mickey Kaus, in the course of a longer (and, I think, devastating and largely unrefuted) response to Beinart, pokes numerous holes in this analogy that I won't repeat here. Even if you think Kaus is off-base in terms of his preferred war strategy (which, to a considerable extent, I think he is) I think he beats the stuffing out of this particular analogy, from the perspective of the nature of the enemy and the nature of our response.
I'd add that the Cold War was an ideological struggle within the West, broadly speaking, whereas it's not clear that our current war is an ideological conflict of that sort, whatever Paul Berman thinks. This may be a clash of civilizations (like, I dunno, the Pacific Theater of World War II); or it may be an ideological civil war within the *Muslim* world in which we have unfortunately been invited to participate after being attacked by one side (which is certainly the way the guys who attacked us portray it). In any event: blue jeans and rock-and-roll and so forth were real weapons in the Cold War. They are weapons in this war as well, but weapons rather more likely to backfire. (It's also possible, of course, that our enemies will find democracy so sexy that they suffer the kind of precipitous decline in fertility that has afflicted so much of Catholic Europe; who knows?)
Then there's the problem that Beinart thinks he's proposing a liberal and Democratic alternative to the Bush Doctrine, but when you come right down to it it's not clear where the difference lies. Beinart emphasizes Truman's alliance-building, among other things. But Beinart's magazine is not exactly pleased with his efforts in this area. Bush is working with semi-democratic regimes in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia to fight Muslim militants in these countries. Beinart's magazine is highly critical of that cooperation. Bush is working with outright authoritarians in Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and has made a high-profile deal with Libya, again with a view to advancing the primary war aim of crushing radical Islamic terrorist groups. Beinart's magazine is highly critical of these areas of cooperation as well. Bush has periodically rallied the smaller European states and Britain against France and Germany. I'm not sure what TNR thinks of that, but I suspect they are ambivalent. Who is Beinart thinking is supposed to be part of the Grand Alliance - India? Well, TNR is quite realistic on the complications of getting too close to India. Turkey? Sorry, there've been a few setbacks on that score lately, and contra TNR's house view it is clear in retrospect (whether or not it was clear prospectively) that there was *no way* to wage war in Iraq without seriously freaking the Turks out. And it's hard to believe what Beinart is thinking of on the alliance side is a more "serious" effort to woo democratic Western allies like France and Germany.
This is a big conceptual problem. He wants to imagine a Democratic alternative to Bush bringing the key players together around a muscular, liberal and internationalist response to the challenge of al-Qaeda. But he has basically two choices of countries to turn to for alliances: those outside the Muslim world who are fighting Muslims outside or inside their borders (e.g., Russia, Israel, India, Thailand, the Philippines) and those inside the Muslim world who are trying to keep from being toppled by the Islamists (e.g., Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia). Beinart doesn't really want to form a grand alliance with either, which leaves him pretty much without a date. But he's against unilateralism.
It would be nice for Beinart and for us if there were a bloc of Muslim democracies fighting against a blog of Muslim theocracies and fascist autocracies; that would certainly make the Cold War and World War II analogies work better. But the former are - still - entirely notional and it's the Bush Doctrine that willing this bloc into being is the key to winning the war. So, like I said, Beinart thinks he's providing a liberal, Democratic alternative to the Bush Doctrine. I'll be darned if I know what it is.
So Beinart's core strategic analogy is strained, and his critique of the Bush Doctrine is confused. Basically, he wishes the Democrats were running this war, so he's convinced himself that running on the Bush Doctrine while asserting that the Democrats are providing a more robust and magnanimous alternative to said doctrine would be the ticket back to power. This is, pretty clearly, wishful thinking.
The reasons why - the political problems with the idea, as opposed to the strategic ones - are not hard to discern. First, the base hates it. The activist base of the Democratic Party was foursquare against the Iraq War and thinks Bush has taken this whole War On Terrorism thing way too far all around. The Wallace Democrats were a minority among the real powers of Truman's day. Today, a purge of the sort Beinart favors would purge much of the Democratic Party.
But there's a deeper problem. Beinart mis-diagnoses what's wrong with the Democrats on national security. The problem is not that Democrats are not ambitious enough or idealistic enough or willing enough to use force. The problem is that they are not perceived as sufficiently nationalistic. And a Wilsonian program is not going to change that impression.
People are already convinced that Republicans generally and Bush in particular care about defending America. That's why Democrats are having such a hard time getting sufficient traction on things like, say, border security. How Democrats got into this bind is a discussion for another time, but that they are in the bind should be beyond dispute.
This was not the problem in Truman's day. Democrats had just led the United States to total victory in the largest war ever fought, and had not hesitated to use the most destructive weapons ever conceived against our foes. There was legitimate worry in Truman's day that Democrats were specifically soft on Communism - blind to the threat of the Soviet Union or sympathetic to its aims. Purging the party solved that problem rather neatly. There's no obvious analogy for Beinart's purge, because, again, the problem is at the core. There's no peripheral group of sympathizers with terrorists to worry about; rather, the core of the Democratic Party is perceived as not fundamentally concerned with defending our national interests.
This means three things.
First, actual policy debate must either follow a change in people's perception of Democrats or must aid in changing that perception. Beinart's program is a "me, too" and "we'd do it better" program; in and of itself, this will convince nobody. Kicking out Moore is not enough to change people's perceptions, and supporting a Wilsonian foreign policy would probably be counter-productive.
Second, Democrats could get a lot more mileage out of symbolic actions that prove their gut-level patriotism than they would out of trying to one-up Bush on Wilsonianism. It would also be a lot cheaper. One example: Democrats should immediately demand that every university that accepts Federal funds allow ROTC on campus. This will lose them exactly no votes outside of Cambridge and Berkeley, and they don't need votes in Massachusetts or California.
Third, Democrats have the real option of coming at Bush from what used to be called the Right. Specifically, they can raise the Realist banner - provided they take the responsibilities of Realism seriously, and don't use purported realism as an excuse to advocate passivity. (See my post about Kennan below.) Beinart should read his own magazine more often. I remember a feature that came out shortly after the election where someone who was canvassing in Ohio among undecideds described what he found. Basically, the people who were undecided were very pessimistic about promoting democracy, because they felt the Middle East was hopeless. They were therefore nervous about Bush. But they didn't think the Democrats were serious as an alternative. These people probably broke Bush's way. These are people the Democrats need to win, and that are winnable. Does Beinart's program speak to them?
Democrats are slowly starting to figure this out, but much too slowly. They are making increasingly effective attacks against President Bush over border security, something that is driving Republican opponents of illegal immigration wild with frustration. But some of the Democratic attempts to make these points (for example, when Democrats harp on port security) fall flat because Republicans successfully (and sometimes legitimately) accuse them of formulating their positions based on domestic political needs (e.g., the opinions of the unions) rather than real security needs. And the reason Democrats don't get traction in their responses is that they haven't yet overcome this wall of distrust.
Here's Beinart's problem. He and his magazine are ideologically committed to the notion that the a muscular Wilsonian foreign policy is a good thing. But Bush has pretty much staked out that territory. It would be very convenient for Beinart if Bush were running Eisenhower's foreign policy. But he isn't. And it just so happens that lots of Americans would vote for Eisenhower's foreign policy. So, in the end, the advice that TNR proffers is good for TNR - and may be good for America, if TNR is right on the policy merits. But it's pretty clearly bad for the Democrats as a political party.
So: what should the Democrats do? What, for that matter, should TNR do to help the Democrats?
I think Democrats have two paths to choose from in how to come back. Let me put the choices in terms of demographics. The Democrats, for the past few decades, have been trying to win with the McGovern coalition: upscale urban and suburban whites with culturally liberal attitudes plus racial and ethnic minorities. This coalition is growing and Democratic control of this coalition is growing stronger: they rack up large margins among singles and secularists, are growing their market-share in the inner suburbs, are winning huge majorities among blacks, small but growing majorities among East Asians and South Asians, and fairly stable large majorities among Hispanics. (As Steve Sailer has shown, the Hispanic vote tends to fluctuate at a fairly fixed percentage distance from the non-Hispanic white vote. By contrast, the black vote is almost impervious to GOP inroads, and the East and South Asian votes have trended Democrat *against* the national tide towards the GOP.) The reason this has not been winning them national election is that, on the other side of the ledger, whites, particularly white married people, particularly the white married working class, has been leaving the Democratic Party and trending strongly Republican.
So the Democrats can basically try two strategies to win. They can try to continue to grow the McGovern coalition. That means, basically, cementing their identity as the party of the state, a centrist governing party on the European model, like Blair's New Labor or Germany's Social Democrats or France's Gaullists. America at this time is not in the mood to be like Europe, but we're not as different as we sometimes seem, and there's room for a confident party of the state that is committed to managing that state well.
The Progressive tradition in the Democratic Party marches to this drum. Nothing is zero-sum in politics, but this strategy would concede losing more and more of the white working class and fighting to gain more share of the upper-middle class. It would probably mean hewing to center-right positions on economics while remaining culturally more liberal. It would mean taking foreign policy positions that, in Walter Russell Mead's formulation, are Hamiltonian, based on an enlightened view of national interest and a search for order and stability. Like I said: Eisenhower's foreign policy. It would mean, basically, completing the change begun by Clinton. This would certainly not require them to join a great crusade to make the Middle East safe for democracy. Indeed, such a crusade might be counter-productive.
The alternative would be to try to win back some of the white working class, and move in a Populist direction. Funny thing, though: while the white working class is very patriotic and rallies around the flag, they are far from committed to either the Iraq adventure or the more expansive and ideological formulations of the war. The gating issue is: are you ready to defend the country? To win these people back, the Democrats will first have to convince them that they are from this country - that the Democratic Party is still, as they once called themselves, the Party of the People.
In foreign policy terms, that probably means adopting policies that - again, in Mead's terms - are Jeffersonian, the kinds of policies that would be damned by TNR and others as isolationist. But really, if they go this route they have lots of lattitude in foreign policy so long as they prove they are gut-level patriotic. But on the domestic front, they'll need to make changes.
On the domestic front, winning back the white working class means moving to the right culturally pretty much across the board, while finding economic issues that speak to the needs and anxieties of working-class Americans. I think one slogan from the Edwards campaign should be adopted by Democrats generally: the war against work. I'll return to this slogan again; it's the only good thing that ever came or will come from Edwards, and I think it resonates on a bunch of levels. With that slogan in mind, I can think of three issues that would get real traction for Democrats:
1. Reducing immigration, particularly illegal immigration. It's unpopular and it pushes down wages. High legal immigration may be a net economic positive for the country (I think it is), but even if it is a net-positive the costs are born disproportionately by the working class. And illegal immigration is a huge problem on multiple levels. Bush has left this issue wide open. Democrats should seize it. (Hillary already has started to.)
2. Health care reform. You heard that right. Democrats have flubbed this issue by talking almost exclusively about the elderly and by talking about it in terms of goodies from the government. But one of the biggest problems with America's health care system is its effect on employment. A major reason people are afraid to become self-employed or change jobs or what-have-you is fear of losing health insurance. It's also a major reason why some women work who otherwise would stay home with the kids: because they may be the ones with better benefits (even if they have low salaries as, say, teachers or office secretaries). The cost of health benefits, meanwhile, is strangling many old manufacturing enterprises with unionized workforces (e.g., General Motors). Democrats can't get a free lunch on this issue (any public provision of health coverage will raise a host of issues, and there will always be losers) but they could do a lot better with it politically if they framed the issue more effectively.
3. Taxes. For 25 years, the tax burden has been shifting increasingly to wages, a consequence of the way we finance our entitlement system. Democrats could propose eliminating the payroll tax entirely and replacing it with a Value-Added Tax. That would be a pro-growth reform of the tax code that, I suspect, Republicans would have trouble signing on to, but that you could get a whole pack of economists to support, that would help raise employment and that would put money disproportionately in working people's pockets. Democrats are still suffering from being the party of high taxes and no ideas. This would be one way to rebut both charges.
Democrats have been lazily assuming that their basic economic pitch works fine but that they keep losing on other issues like culture, presumably because the American people are bigoted or irrational. That's less than half right: the Democrats are right that the GOP economic pitch is not persuasive to a majority of Americans, but they are wrong that the Democrats have formulated a persuasive alternative pitch. And they are wrong that the culture issues are a matter of bigotry or irrationality, and as long as they think they are they'll never find out a way to satisfy Americans that they can be trusted with them.
I'm going to come back to Kaus, because I think this quote summarizes a lot of what I've been saying: "At times [Beinart's] piece --and his magazine!--read like the Howell Raines Fallacy writ large (the HRF being the easy assumption that the great and good American people, offered a fair choice, will of course choose the course you happen to advocate). Beinart may support the Iraq War abroad and gay marriage at home, and he may have good reasons for it. That doesn't necessarily mean there's a majority to be had if only a politician dares claim the waiting "Pro-War/Pro-Gay" mantle. It seems just as likely Beinart would find that his views put him in a relatively small political foxhole with Andrew Sullivan and a few of TNR's other contributing editors. This doesn't mean he's not right. It means he can't avoid waging and winning the debates he's avoiding (about Iraq, and the ways in which the fight against terror is and isn't like the Cold War) if he wants to actually win elections."
So my advice to Democrats, in a nutshell, would be: when you think about foreign policy, think about what's actually in the national interest, and advocate that. Then package it with appeals that prove your gut-level patriotism. Then, think seriously about what your domestic program should be, and what segments of the country you can sell it to (because whatever it is, you won't be able to sell it to everybody).
My own feeling is: the Democrats would be better off and the country would be better off if the Democrats tried to win back the white working class, because this would divide the country less by race or religious intensity and would mean that someone is looking out for these people's economic interests. I'm a Republican, and I tend to think that classic Republican policies - free trade, lower regulation, lower taxes - are good for "making the pie higher" and thereby benefitting us all. But sometimes the little guy gets the shaft even as we all, as a whole, do better, and somebody has to be the party looking out for the little guy. That used to be the Democrats.