Thursday, June 15, 2006
I've got to beg to differ with Peggy Noonan on whether James Webb represents something new or not in the Democratic Party. He emphatically does represent something new: the first serious attempt by the Democrats to make a play for a variety of overlapping segments of voters - older veterans, people of Scots-Irish ancestry, "paleo-cons," working-class white men - who they've done a lousy job of winning in recent times, who may very well be up for grabs in 2008, and who could well be seduced by an intelligent Democratic pitch.
True, Webb's positions on education and health care amount to little more than standard-issue Democratic talking points. I don't suspect he has any real opinions here; there are not his issues. His call for more spending on Virginia's infrastructure sounds like traditional pork-barrel politics to me; nothing especially partisan about that. His positions on abortion and gay rights are, as Noonan admits, surely sincere, and happen to dovetail with the Democratic Party's positions on the issues. His position on gun rights is likewise sincere and (like Paul Hackett, a less impressive vet candidate who didn't make the playoffs) opposed to the Democratic Party's positions, albeit, again as Noonan admits, the Democrats have pretty much abandoned the cause of disarming America.
But none of this is what Webb is *running on.* On the issues he actually seems to care about, he's carving out a platform that could appeal to a significant and substantial constituency.
- He's running against the Iraq War not as a dove but as a realist. That is *not* where Nancy Pelosi is coming from.
- He's an advocate of "fair trade" - in this he's returning to an old Dick Gephardt Democratic religion that mostly fell by the wayside in the Clinton years.
- He favors the House approach to immigration: first get control of the border and enforce the law internally, *then* we can talk about what to do about both those aliens who are still here illegally and about what other reforms we should make in our immigration laws (levels of legal immigration, how immigrants are selected, what kind of guestworker program if any, etc.).
- He has, in the past, opposed race-based affirmative action; he backed off this a bit recently to say that he understood that there were good reasons for African Americans to receive preferences, but he reiterated his opposition to broader racial preferences, something that immediately drew fire from professional Hispanic organizations.
This does not sound to me like the traditional issue mix of the Democratic Party. It's *compatible* with the traditional issue mix in most ways, but it's not *identical* to it, and it contradicts it in some interesting ways (specifically on immigration and race). That's what makes him something new and interesting. When Noonan postulates that a really *interesting* Democrat would favor tax cuts, I wonder whether by "interesting" she means "Republican."
I should spend more time, though, on the most false claim in her piece: that Webb's critique of the Iraq war is somehow the same as the critique we've been hearing since the days of George McGovern. It emphatically is not, and Noonan should know better.
Because I find it endlessly useful, I'll make use of Mead's division of American foreign policy ideas into four types: Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, Hamiltonian and Wilsonian. I've long felt that the best way to understand this typology is as the four quadrants of a plane where one axis runs from "realist" to "idealist" and the other axis runs from "introverted" to "extroverted". Thus:
Jeffersonian: introverted idealist
Jacksonian: introverted realist
Hamiltonian: extroverted realist
Wilsonian: extroverted idealist
Classic liberal internationalism such as dominated Democratic Party thinking from Roosevelt through Johnson was a blend of Hamiltonian and Wilsonian ideas: a combination of self-interest and idealism but firmly committed to engagement with the wider world. The old pre-WWII Republican Party was divided between Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian wings (think TR and Taft): those who understood that American interests required sophisticated engagement with the wider world and isolationists who wanted to insulate the American republic from the corruption that such entanglements would entail. WWII having discredited isolationism, the post-WWII GOP was pulled between a dominant Hamiltonian framework (think Eisenhower) and populist Jacksonian impulses (think Goldwater).
The Vietnam War left the Democratic Party unable to think seriously about foreign policy at all for quite some time, and by the Reagan Presidency Hamiltonian, Jacksonian and Wilsonian foreign policy ideas all found their home in the GOP. When they finally recaptured the Presidency in the Clinton years, the Democrats had to come up with an approach to foreign policy; what they came up with is basically a hollowed-out version of their old liberal internationalism, a liberal internationalism that wasn't especially serious about advancing either our interests or our ideals, but that traded in a lot of high-flown rhetoric about being the "indispensible nation" and whatnot. Jeffersonianism, meanwhile, made a modest comeback in the GOP, but the dominant foreign policy strain in the GOP in the 1990s was Jacksonian.
Enter the Bush Administration, whose foreign policy could probably be best described as a blend of Wilsonian and Jacksonian impulses, or as Jacksonian impulses disguised with Wilsonian rhetoric. This has proved a profoundly ineffective combination; the Wilsonian rhetoric causes internal confusion about our objectives and sets us up for a variety of different kinds of failure, while it fails to persuade most international observers who see the Jacksonian impulses underneath.
The Democrats have had a hard time responding with a foreign policy of their own, partly because they have not thought seriously about foreign policy for some time and partly because they think the Wilsonian rhetoric belongs to them, so they can't bring themselves to critique the Bush Administration from a realist direction. There is a temptation in some quarters of the Democratic Party to take a Jeffersonian turn and call for a pulling back from the world, but coming from the Democrats this would surely be understood by the electorate not as a principled position but as a sign of weakness in the face of the enemy. Others - mostly people affiliated with The New Republic - have called for a return to the muscular Wilsonian traditions of the golden age of Democratic dominance. But one-upping the Bush Administration (or, say, a John McCain, current frontrunner for the 2008 nomination) on their commitment to use force to spread democracy sounds like an absolutely terrible strategy when our current "hard Wilsonian" adventure in Iraq is going so poorly.
Moreover, it is quite apparent which foreign policy tradition is currently orphaned between our two parties: the hard-headed internationalism of the Hamiltonians. Advocating a retreat from the world is both bad politics and bad policy. But if the Democrats are to convince anyone that they can be trusted in crafting a real foreign policy, one that truly does "entangle" us in the wider world, they need to convince people that they understand the concept of the national interest.
Enter James Webb. He doesn't need to prove his Jacksonian bona-fides; his biography does that for him. But this is where Democrats have usually stopped: they find some hard-bitten Jeffersonian old soldier who's got enough scars and doesn't want our boys fighting in any more of them furrin' wars and think that biography will substitute for policy. Webb, by contrast, actually has foreign policy *ideas*. He is emphatically not another war hero who's tired of war. He's got a very cogent and articulate understanding of the national interest and what we need to do to protect it. It's Pacific-centric, focused on the diplomatic and military threat from a rising China; in consequence, it's rather navy-centric (he resigned from his Sec'y of the Navy job way back when over proposed cuts in the fleet). Webb thinks we should be more aggressive in dealing with North Korea - and he means it; he's not just using Korea as a way to avoid dealing with the Middle East. He is deeply engaged in the world, particularly the world of the Pacific; his pre-war critique of the planned war with Iraq was a realist critique not a Vietnam-haunted anti-war rant of the kind that Ted Kennedy might pen.
Webb is exactly the kind of guy the Democrats need to bolster their foreign policy bonifides - not because he makes them look more Jacksonian, but because he makes them more credibly Hamiltonian - more credibly the kind of party Americans would trust with the complexity of America's international situation and the variety of our interests around the world.
And Webb's critique of Iraq is precisely the one Democrats need to make if they are going to make any headway in 2008. "Bring the boys home" will read to most Americans like weakness. "I would have run the war better" will read to most Americans like arrogance. A hard-headed realist critique is what's needed. And a guy like Webb not only has the intellectual chops to come up with that critique but has just the right biography to make people listen to it with respect.
Finally, I should note that demographically Webb is a "new" kind of Democrat as well, because he's an old kind of Democrat: a Scots-Irish uplander, the group of people that produced President Andrew Jackson, the man who put the finishing touches on the Democratic Party's identity. Americans of Scots-Irish descent have moved en masse from the Democrats to the GOP, and the Democrats probably can't win a national election without winning a significant contingent of these folks back. Webb speaks their language - heck, he wrote a book about them.
Let me be clear here: I'm not endorsing Webb. Frankly, I know enough about Allen to be inclined against him for President, but not enough about Webb to know whether he'd be preferable in the Senate (and, you know, I am a New York Republican not a Virginian Democrat). But I am endorsing running guys like Webb as a winning strategy for Democrats. And to me personally he's a very intriguing candidate.
- Will Webb be a single-issue candidate, or will be broaden his message beyond foreign policy? And if the latter, what will he emphasize - trade? (Likely.) Immigration? (Unlikely - Webb and Allen agree, and Webb and the national Democrats disagree.) Health Care? (Likely - I don't think you can run a Democratic campaign without talking up their most potent issue.)
- How vehement will Webb be in his criticism of the Bush Administration's foreign policy? Will he say, in effect, that Iraq was a noble idea but a stupid one - and foreseeably stupid - or will he veer off into the more paranoid direction that some Democratic (and paleo) critics have unfortunately (for them) trended? I'm betting the former, but we'll just have to see.
- Will the Democratic Party tie itself in knots over racial shibboleths (e.g., Webb's opposition to race-based affirmative action for immigrants, his speeches praising the courage of his Confederate ancestors) and therefore be unable to give Webb the support he'll need to win?
- Will Allen go toe-to-toe on foreign policy, try to dodge and change the subject to taxes or abortion or what-have-you, or try to shut down the debate with jingoistic appeals to support the President in wartime? Which tack *should* he take, politically?
- Will any prominent current or former GOP figure endorse Webb over Allen? Who? When?
- Will John McCain campaign for his potential 2008 rival if the race looks close?
If Webb gets the money he needs to be genuinely competitive, this could be a very interesting race indeed. And for Allen, an interesting race is exactly what he does not need, given that he wants to spend his time mobilizing for 2008. Yes, if he has a big tough fight with Webb and trounces him in November then Allen is even better positioned for 2008 than he is now. But if it's close, and he's bloodied, then that's not the case. And if - longshot but possible - he loses . . .