Thursday, June 01, 2006

Fear of Failing: How can the Democrats win if the party is scared of its own shadow?

Fear of Failing
How can the Democrats win if the party is scared of its own shadow?
By Michael Hirsh

May 31, 2006 - A good therapist, we know, can sometimes help a person who’s lost his confidence or mental balance. But what do you do when an entire party needs therapy?

You’d think the Republicans would be the ones in need of professional help. This is a party burdened with a president so unpopular he barely has a base to stand on—Bush seems to be bypassing the lame-duck stage and heading straight for dead duck: a Vietnam-scale quagmire in Iraq and a post-Katrina rot of incompetence and corruption that is infecting the very foundations of the presidency and the GOP’s control of Congress. Not surprisingly, the Republicans are at each others' throats over this loss of prestige and popularity. Neoconservatives and traditionalists are fighting bitterly over foreign policy. Moderates and conservatives are battling over immigration and deficits. And when the maverick John McCain declares his candidacy for 2008 sometime in the next year, the Republicans will be shrieking at each other in public over abortion and other social issues.

But at least the GOP is engaged in a war over real policy choices. It is an emotional debate, often a hysterical and ill-informed one, but it is a fight among adults who know what they believe in and who have the guts to battle for it. By contrast the Democrats, ostensibly the party poised to exploit this GOP civil war, don't seem to remember what it is like to behave as adults. They resemble nothing so much as ill-adjusted adolescents, afraid of their own shadows, much less the presidency. What are they afraid of? Themselves, essentially: their past, their own left, the populist rhetoric of their leaders (Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Howard Dean, Al Gore), the left-wing loony stigma represented by “Fahrenheit 9/11” filmmaker Michael Moore (every Dem’s favorite bugaboo). Above all they fear seeming and looking soft. They are all afflicted with varying degrees of megalophobia, a fear of assuming power. Even Dr. Melfi of “The Sopranos” wouldn’t take this case.

This psychological disability has been long in the making, of course. When it comes to national security, it has been eating at the heart of the Democratic Party since its biggest debacle, Vietnam, which destroyed the Dems' prideful self-image formed during World War II and the cold-war containment consensus. But never has this Democratic dysfunction been so apparent as now, the moment when the Dems should be striding confidently into the limelight to seize control of the national agenda. And none are more pathetically afflicted than those who purport to be the “new” Democrats, the “strong” ones, the ones who want to “resurrect” the gloried intestinal fortitude and moral fiber of FDR, Harry Truman and JFK.

The “strong” ones are actually the most timid. They are the ones who so fear that a leftie like Nancy Pelosi will become speaker of the House, they actually question whether it would be a good idea for the Dems to take control in 2006. They are the ones who think they can outhawk Bush on Iraq and promotion of democracy around the world, but they are mainly driven by a fear of criticizing the premises of his foreign policy, which is to say, his war on terror. While nitpicking and nattering over Bush’s “errors of execution,” they still embrace his fundamentals. In other words, they all continue to sound like unreconstructed John Kerrys, frightened of seeming soft. When they get together, this fear is virtually all they talk about. It is a fear that reeks from the party’s new draft platform for 2006, causing Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, to crack to liberal hawk Peter Beinert recently: “If you have to say you’re tough, you’re not.”

The champion of this “new” breed of Dem tough guys, of course, is Hillary Clinton, who every week, it seems, finds some new way of pandering to the right in her long, stealth march to the 2008 nomination. All in an apparent effort to escape her own shadow, her supposed liberal excesses from the early '90s.

One reason for the persistence of these Democratic phobias has been the party’s abysmal inability, a year and a half after the fact, to reckon with the real reason for Kerry’s loss in the 2004 campaign: once again, fear. Kerry’s campaign was driven by a fear of his shadow (his antiwar activism after Vietnam), of seeming too strident by attacking, even when he himself was being attacked (first by Karl Rove’s “senator flip-flop” campaign, then by the Swift Boat veterans). How else can one explain the inexplicable—the spectacle of a Silver Star winner made to look wimpy by two men who avoided combat? Simple: He was terrified of speaking out. His campaign even toned down the convention speech of that most mild-mannered of presidents, Jimmy Carter.

I hold no brief in this fight, being neither Democrat nor Republican. But here is a message to those few Democrats who retain their self-confidence and sanity (I’m not sure who you are, but there must be some): Come back from the shadows. If you can look past your fears, America’s entire national-security apparatus is out there making your case for you.

Talk to any responsible official or officer in the military, intelligence or diplomatic community. Most will tell you that Bush got most of the war on terror wrong (at least after the Taliban fell), that he invented a war of choice in Iraq and failed to finish the war of necessity against Al Qaeda. The toughest hombres in the country—not least some recently retired generals—are saying the “war president” has no clothes, that he has been, in effect, a disastrous war president. This is what I hear every week now as a reporter, from officials who identify themselves as Republican, Democrat or independent. It is what the facts, sadly, bear out: look at where the precipitous war in Iraq has brought us, and the new violence that is arising out of the unfinished business against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet the vast majority of Democratic leaders cannot bring themselves to say this—Hillary most prominently of all.

Sift through the wreckage of the neoconservative program that Bush adopted. Its central tenets—pre-emptive attacks on rogue regimes, unilateralist disdain for international legitimacy and institutions, the cavalier attitude that war and military solutions should be the primary, or default, approach to foreign problems—are all gone with the wind. What’s left? Effectively the foreign policy of pragmatic global leadership invented by such Democrats as FDR, Truman, JFK and Scoop Jackson, and largely endorsed by Republicans such as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and, yes, even Ronald Reagan.

To oversimplify, its tenets are: Stand up for democracy and freedom, yes, but keep the international system on your side. Make use of the United Nations whenever you can, though not necessarily bending it to your needs when possible. Create as many allies as you can. Listen. Accommodate. Be magnanimous. Above all, make sure you have more guys on your side than your adversaries have on theirs. It is the policy that Bush, chastened and weakened by Iraq, has followed on Libya and North Korea, and it is the policy he now appears to be pursuing on Iran, having agreed to talk to Tehran. And it is largely Democratic in origins and practice.

But to get to the point where they can hark back to this simple program, and confidently embrace it without protesting too much about how tough they are, Democrats must first have the courage to strip bare the GOP’s failures. They must believe they're every bit as good on national security as their rivals. This courage is frankly not in evidence. Five and half years on we see the Republicans, as brazen and full of self-confidence as ever about their national-security credentials, and the Democrats, as timid and full of self-doubt as they ever have been over the same issue. Hence, the need for a good therapist, one with a very large office.

No one looks like a wimp when he or she tells the truth. And the public is crying, pleading for someone to tell the truth. The Democratic hawks seem to think that if they confront Bush over the fundamentals of his foreign policy, they will be forced to admit it was wrong to go into Iraq at the moment and in the way we did. And if they have to admit that, then they must back immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Nonsense. Most Americans now know, without being told, that American prestige is on the line in Iraq. And that any withdrawal will be slow and painful. This is now settled U.S. policy, and it will be followed by whoever the next president is, Democrat or Republican.

The country is desperate for adult leadership, for competence and authority—above all, for an honest reckoning with all that’s gone wrong. And the country isn’t getting it. Maybe that helps to explain the Al Gore revival under way. Here, at least, was someone who can remember what adulthood was like—what it was like to hold power. Most of his Democratic colleagues appear to have forgotten.