Cold War Call to Action Wouldn't Ring True for Democrats Now

Ronald Brownstein

Los Angeles Times

December 13, 2004

Where's Ronald Reagan when you need him — or Eleanor Roosevelt and Walter Reuther?

In a provocative cover article this month, New Republic Editor Peter Beinart argues that today's Democrats should follow the example of Reagan (then a centrist Hollywood Democrat), Roosevelt (the former first lady), Reuther (the great labor leader) and other prominent activists who founded Americans for Democratic Action in 1947, largely to build a Democratic constituency for opposing the spread of communism during the Cold War.

The ADA's formation was a turning point for Democrats because it strengthened a "vital center" committed to resisting expansion by the Soviet Union while many on the left (led by Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt's former vice president) still minimized the threat.

Beinart argues that Democrats today need a comparable centrist movement that will define a "fighting faith" for resisting "totalitarian Islam" and reclaim the party's identity from those on the left — like filmmaker Michael Moore — who he believes see the struggle against America's new foe as "a distraction if not a mirage."

Beinart is a smart and serious student of political history, and his lengthy argument (published in the Dec. 13 issue) is intriguing. But his analogy to the 1940s is imperfect for explaining the situation Democrats face now. In fact, his argument shows how difficult it will be for Democrats to set a new course on national security until they regain the White House.

Beinart's biggest complaint is that in the war on terrorism, Democrats have allowed themselves to be defined more by what they oppose than what they support. "When liberals talk about America's new era, the discussion is largely negative — against the Iraq war, against restrictions on civil liberties, against America's worsening reputation in the world," he writes.

Democrats, he says, must find a positive agenda that can convince the country that the party will combat Islamic terrorism as staunchly as the post-World War II ADA centrists resisted Soviet communism.

Beinart is surely right that in this uneasy new era, as at the height of the Cold War, Democrats are unlikely to win the White House unless voters trust the party to protect them. But he glosses over the principal reason the ADA generation could articulate a positive foreign policy agenda more easily than Democrats can today.

When the ADA was formed, a Democratic president, Harry S. Truman, was developing America's strategy against the spread of Soviet communism. Although Truman didn't neglect military might, his vision of "containment" put much greater emphasis on economic aid (through the Truman Doctrine for Greece and Turkey and the Marshall Plan for Europe) and international alliances (NATO). Truman made it easier for the ADA to embrace a positive agenda, because he set a course for the Cold War most Democrats could support.

Today it is Republican President Bush deciding the strategy in the war on terrorism. And by invading Iraq, especially amid so much international resistance, he has set a direction that most Democrats consider counterproductive. That has created a debate that guarantees the "largely negative" Democratic reaction Beinart laments.

The war in Iraq is now the principal political battleground in the war on terrorism. Since so many Democrats reject Bush's decision to invade — or at least the way he has conducted the war — it is inevitable that the party is being defined more by its opposition to his choices than by its own alternatives.

If a Republican had been elected president in 1948 by promising to roll back Soviet control of Eastern Europe through military invasion, the ADA generation probably would have been defined primarily by opposition to the administration's direction too.

Given the dominance of Iraq in the campaign debate, Sen. John F. Kerry made more progress in developing a positive post-9/11 Democratic national security agenda than Beinart acknowledges.

Kerry criticized Bush's management of the Iraq war, but he resisted pressure from the left to set a date for withdrawing U.S. troops. In almost every speech, Kerry insisted that combating Islamic extremism would be his top priority. He promised to expand the military, augment the special forces, launch new efforts to safeguard nuclear materials and, above all, to cooperate more closely with allies in both pursuing terrorists and encouraging economic, social and political reform in the Arab world to defuse the tensions breeding terrorism.

It wasn't a perfect agenda, but it wasn't entirely reactive either.

Yet the campaign debate, inexorably, focused more on Bush's actual decisions — which produced tangible consequences in Iraq that Americans could see every night on television — than on Kerry's alternative ideas, which never could be more than abstractions to voters. Bush, through his actions, succeeded in defining for a slight majority of Americans what it meant to be tough and resolute against terrorism. And that allowed him to portray Kerry as unsteady or weak for proposing a different direction. That's the advantage of incumbency.

Kerry's dilemma during the campaign is the Democratic dilemma now. In American politics, the party out of the White House is defined mostly by its reaction to the president's decisions, especially in foreign policy. Beinart is wise in counseling Democrats to highlight ideas for the war on terrorism that extend beyond criticizing Bush. But Kerry's experience shows that even when they do, the president will still set the terms of debate because he sets the direction for national security policy.

Until Democrats have a president who can fight the war on terrorism in a manner the party broadly supports, their message on national security will remain heavily negative — and splintered. Without the White House, Democrats are more likely to fight with each other than coalesce behind a "fighting faith" for the long struggle against Islamic radicalism.


Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times' website at http://www.latimes.com/brownstein .