This week, congressional Democrats will regain some of the ground they lost in their disastrous 30-year decline following the Vietnam War. To grasp how far they have fallen, you need only recall the party’s legislative strength during the bicentennial year of 1976: 291 seats in the House, 61 in the Senate. Back then, Democrats had controlled Congress for so long that Republican majorities seemed almost unimaginable. Today, it is the outlook for Democratic majorities that is in doubt.
Democrats have a history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and the danger of self-destruction won’t disappear when polls close. As one House Democrat remarked to the Wall Street Journal last week while reflecting on the prospect of winning a majority, “we’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it.” Obviously, the issue most likely to trip up Democrats is defense. They have two years to convince voters that their party can be entrusted with the nation’s security before a new president is elected in 2008. Here are four mistakes they need to avoid if they want to win that contest.
1. Don’t force a quick pullout of troops from Iraq. Most voters now agree the Iraq war was a mistake, but they don’t agree on what to do about it. Any legislative effort to compel early withdrawal of troops will embolden insurgents and play into the hands of Republicans. Unless Democrats have some secret plan for pacifying Iraq, the politically astute thing to do is let the White House keep running the war while Democrats urge an accelerated turnover of peacekeeping responsibilities to indigenous forces. Iraq probably isn’t going to be a democracy, but Democrats need to avoid being blamed when the dream dies.
2. Don’t cut weapons without seeking the military’s advice. Defense plants are full of union members who lean Democratic. Eliminating programs they work on makes about as much electoral sense for Democrats as cutting Medicare. But that hasn’t prevented party pundits from proposing cuts to programs in states such as Missouri and Pennsylvania. Not only would such moves alienate workers, but they would put the party crosswise with war-fighters who say they need the weapons. Why hand Republicans this issue when it is obvious soldiers and airmen know what they need better than the pundits do?
3. Don’t play politics with key committee assignments. The Democrats poised to take over as chairmen of national-security panels are mainly centrists with strong military credentials. That’s good, because for the next two years they will be the public face of the party’s defense policies. But there is one key committee where politics may trump competence in determining who is leader. Denying the chairmanship of the House intelligence committee to the brainy, highly qualified Jane Harman just because she doesn’t hail from a convenient ethnic group looks real bad. People in the intelligence community are already talking about “circling the wagons” if Harman doesn’t get the job.
4. Don’t rely on academic theorists when real experts are available. There don’t seem to be many veterans among the ranks of Democratic Party defense experts. The party prefers to turn to academics for defense ideas. Unfortunately, that impulse is part of the reason Donald Rumsfeld went awry in Iraq. He was testing some academic theories about military transformation that turned out to be, well, wrong. If Democrats want to be credible on defense, they need to leave the professors at home and turn to military personnel who have real-world experience with the demands of modern warfare.
Find Archived Articles: