What TPM doesn't understand about the Democrats
Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo runs about the smartest defense of the Democratic Party you'll find. But sometimes you get the idea that the guys over there just don't get it. Take this recent post:
(November 15, 2005 -- 01:41 AM EDT)
E.J.Dionne: "There is a great missing element in the argument over whether the administration manipulated the facts. Neither side wants to talk about the context in which Bush won a blank check from Congress to invade Iraq. He doesn't want us to remember that he injected the war debate into the 2002 midterm election campaign for partisan purposes, and he doesn't want to acknowledge that he used the post-Sept. 11 mood to do all he could to intimidate Democrats from raising questions more of them should have raised."
[Josh Marshall writes:] This is an extremely good point. As is often the case in fierce debates some of the most relevant angles of discussion are left untouched because they serve neither side's purpose. This is most certainly one of them.
On the contrary: far from "injecting the war debate into the 2002 midterm election campaign for partisan purposes", it would be more accurate to say that W took advantage of the fall campaign to force Democrats to do something they have been reluctant to do for a generation: approve military force in order to defend their country in time of danger.
In placing it in that way, I realize that many Democrats have a different slant. But that is precisely the point I wish to make: In the late 1940s, it was the Republican party that was the party of isolationism, and the Democratic party that was the party of national defense. And it might have stayed that way except for Eisenhower's defeat of Taft and the isolationist wing of the GOP in 1952. Meanwhile, the Democrats came progressively under control the 1948 Henry Wallace/1972 George McGovern wing of Democratic isolationism.
September 11th gave the Democratic party a historic opportunity to reverse course, and reclaim national defense as a core value, to do an about face in a manner similar to what happened with the Republicans in 1952. The Democrats failed miserably. For a few months post 11 September 2001, the Democratic party was ready, willing and eager to defend the country...and then the Democrats rapidly slid back into the blame-America-first isolationism that has ruled the party for the last generation.
The tragedy is that W's decision to have the Congress vote on war in Iraq in the middle of the 2002 election season was based on the very realistic assessment that Democrats would be unlikely to vote for war under any other circumstances. Indeed, Democratic leaders such as Josh Marshall continue to underrate how little Middle America thinks the Democrats can be trusted to defend America.
Here are two pieces of evidence that Josh and the TPM gang should save on their laptops as they think about 2008:
1. There is no speech at the GOP national convention that Democrats hated more than Zell Miller's double-barrelled denunciation of his own party for failing to defend America in time of war. But focus groups showed that this was the MOST popular speech of the convention among UNDECIDED voters. No doubt Josh thinks that Miller's speech constituted outrageous questioning of the Democrats' patriotism--but Middle America thought it was a great speech. Democrats need to face honestly the question of why non-aligned voters don't think their party can be trusted in time of war and why they think Zell Miller-like denuciations are fully justified by the facts.
2. Democrats thought they could earn trust with the voters on national defense by nominating war-hero Kerry. But exit polls showed that when asked whether Kerry could be trusted on terrorism, he won a plurality of voters in only two states: Massachussetts and Maryland. In other words, not only did every red state think Kerry couldn't be trusted on terrorism, the blue states didn't trust Kerry on terrorism either (with the exceptions of MA and MD). What is worse, it is not clear that the Democrats had any candidate in 2004 with better credentials on terrorism that Kerry. The Democrats nominated for president a man that they themselves had little confidence in on national security--they can scarcely be surprised that he led their party to defeat.
Unfortunately, there is at present no evidence that the Democratic party leadership has any intentions of dealing meaningfully with national defense. After the 2004 debacle, they then put Howard Dean at the head of their party. And they seem convinced that going even farther to the left on national security issues is the way to win in 2006 and 2008.
Politics is a strange business, and the political future is never fully predictable. But the betting here is that continued efforts to attack W from the left will lead to the same result in 2006 that it produced in 2004: defeat at the polls.