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The Case for Optimism

Noam Scheiber has a post I'd like to believe in but don't really about the politics of democratization. It seems to me that the view that the conservative rank-and-file has no genuine (i.e., non-partisanship-based) interest in international issues has very little actual empirical support, though it's a theme TNR writers have often touched on. My column this week is mostly on theme theme of "credit to Bush, yes; credit to the Iraq War, no" on some recent positive developments in the Middle East. At the end, though, I get into the truly crass reason why there's not even a partisan reason for Democrats to wish Bush ill abroad:

To put things in the crassest partisan terms: Stunning foreign-policy success breeds domestic failure. Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior may have earned themselves a place in the history books for successfully managing the end of the Cold War. But in the realm of partisan politics, all they did was cost the Republican Party its best issue: anti-communism. The lack of the red menace took the issue off the table and enabled the Democrats to return to power on the strength of the slogan, "It's the economy, stupid."

Liberals still ought to address our decades-old inability to win national-security debates. But if the next three years go well enough, that may become unnecessary.

One could note that, similarly, the full employment, wide prosperity, and lack of budgetary woes created under the auspices (though obviously not wholly created by) the Clinton administration greased the skids for Bush's 2000 campaign. Politics is full of paradoxes like this. If liberals ever succeed in creating a society where African-Americans are as fully integrated into the social and economic mainstream as are, say, white Catholics today that will be an electoral disaster for the Democratic Party just as the social and economic mainstreaming of white Catholics during the Democratic hegemony of the 1930-60s was. Republican mobilization of the "cultural issues" largely requires them to not successfully put a socially conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Winning on the national security issue doesn't work if you successfully resolve the major challenge of the day. People shouldn't be partisans in this kind of narrow sense anyway, and I suspect that few are, but that's how it seems to me.

March 8, 2005 | Permalink

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Tracked on Mar 8, 2005 8:41:20 PM

Comments

"Politics is full of paradoxes like this. If liberals ever succeed in creating a society where African-Americans are as fully integrated into the social and economic mainstream as are, say, white Catholics today that will be an electoral disaster for the Democratic Party just as the social and economic mainstreaming of white Catholics during the Democratic hegemony of the 1930-60s was."

How could anyone think that?

Posted by: Brian | Mar 8, 2005 3:37:36 PM

Hence the war on terror. They learned their lesson with communism.

Posted by: Glenn Bridgman | Mar 8, 2005 3:38:40 PM

"The lack of the red menace took the issue off the table"

Given the ease of access to WMD's by small groups, the current national security issues are going to be on the table for a very long time.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 8, 2005 3:39:08 PM

Credit to Bush: no
Credit the Iraq war: no

Bush made his policy very explicit: pre-emptive war where the threat rises to the level posed by Iraq in 2002. Good idea? Show of hands.

As for unintended consequences: nobody is going to base foreign policy on luck. Not to mention two other points that should give the Bush triumphalists pause: One is that there is no democracy in Syria or Egypt, not to mention Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Just talk. We remain hopeful. Second, the westernification (call it enlightenment, and yes, that is what you call the acknowledgment and correction of the anti-women bias of traditional religion) of the middle east has been proceeding apace for decades. It is precisely this that bin Laden and his fellow travelers most object to about western cultural hegemony. There is no chance that the future won't bring greater enlightenment to the middle eastern autocracies, with or without our slaughtering Arabs, and sacrificing our own.

I have an idea, lets just not put any more Baath-like parties in power, nor support regimes like in Saudi Arabia, where women are chattel. Moral clarity is not just for warmongers.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 8, 2005 3:46:28 PM

Petey:

National security issues are not on the table if WMD's in the hands of outlaw groups is the issue. If that were the issue, securing the nuclear material from the former USSR and dealing more forthrightly with Pakistan, where more has been done to spread nuke technology to rogue regimes than anywhere, would be the priorities. Not bringing Islam to Iraq as is currently the case.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 8, 2005 3:50:03 PM

If liberals ever succeed in creating a society where African-Americans are as fully integrated into the social and economic mainstream as are, say, white Catholics today that will be an electoral disaster for the Democratic Party just as the social and economic mainstreaming of white Catholics during the Democratic hegemony of the 1930-60s was.

Heh. Crazier right-wingers insist that for exactly this reason, keeping poor people poor is the hidden goal of the Democratic party.

Posted by: digamma | Mar 8, 2005 3:56:15 PM

Interesting reading of history. Reagan and, especially, 41 had little if any more to do with “the end of the Cold War” than I did, and I didn’t have even a butterfly effect. And the notion that the demise of this issue led to Clinton overlooks (a) the fact that Reagan was succeeded by a Republican, (b) the recession toward the end of 41’s term, (c) “read my hips,” (d) “the vision thing,” and (e) Ross Perot.

Posted by: ostap | Mar 8, 2005 3:58:37 PM

Liberals still ought to address our decades-old inability to win national-security debates.

I hate to be a defeatist, but this really is probably a lost cause. There's a large block of voters who remember the years 1968-1989 as the years when the Democratic party was Just Flat Wrong on foreign affairs and national security matters. So wrong that the nation and indeed humanity suffered as a result. A lot of those are embarrassed ex-Democrats, which makes their opinions on the matter even stronger. You're not going to convert those folk, particularly because, well, they've got a point. The Dems are pretty much stuck with hoping that national security and foreign affairs become less important issues, or waiting for those folks to die off.

Posted by: dave | Mar 8, 2005 4:01:37 PM

Sorry, forgot to close the tag.

Posted by: dave | Mar 8, 2005 4:02:57 PM

It's not a paradox at all. Political movements that are based on defeating some enemy (communism, racism, abortion, whatever) tend to lose a lot of steam if the enemy is actually defeated. After all, if the enemy is defeated, people start to think, "What's the point? We can move on with our lives now."

Same for individual activist groups. If the Sierra Club or the NRA got everything it wanted, their membership would drop like flies. Members are most motivated when they can persuade themselves that they are combatting some huge force of evil that is bent on destroying the environment or taking away everyone's guns.

Posted by: Functional | Mar 8, 2005 4:11:29 PM

pardon, but what's "read my hips?"

Posted by: flip | Mar 8, 2005 4:15:33 PM

Mr. Flip,

I think its a form of non-verbal communication, though it may be difficult to transmit on a text medium.

Posted by: luisalegria | Mar 8, 2005 4:19:56 PM

"Not bringing Islam to Iraq as is currently the case."

Perhaps you forget how the Iraq war was originally sold...

Posted by: Petey | Mar 8, 2005 4:26:03 PM

"Read my hips," history of: When running for re-election, George H. W. Bush said "read my lips, no new taxes." Once elected, he raised taxes. When asked about breaking his pledge, he joked "read my hips." This response didn't exactly endear him to the Republican faithful, and was symptomatic of his larger failings motivating the right.

Posted by: ostap | Mar 8, 2005 4:26:33 PM

ostap, much thanks.
luisalegria, I'm not a "Mr."

Posted by: flip | Mar 8, 2005 4:28:56 PM

I agree with Matt. I've been saying this for over a year. Democratic success in the future depends on peace and stability in the Middle East, even if it means that Bush will be remembered fondly.

I suppose there's some truth to Dave's comment, but only the part about perception. I'm not certain what parts of Republican foreign policy he wants to defend: Nixon's perpetuating the war in Southeast Asia, Reagan's arming of the Taliban and Saddam, his trading arms for hostages with Iran, his cutting and running in Lebanon, his supporting death squads in Central America, or Bush's stationing troops in the land of Mecca.

In sum: just because the Republicans have managed to convince a bunch of yokels that Ronald Reagan personally slew Yuri Andropov in hand-to-hand combat doesn't mean that "they have a point," in historical fact. American victory in the Cold War was a bipartisan effort, no matter how much the press lies about it.

Posted by: AWC | Mar 8, 2005 4:32:11 PM

Let me see if I understand:

1. We have no credibility on defense. We knee-jerk "no" on everything except half assed, low return sideshows like Kosovo and Somalia.
2. We will do better if W succeeds on his foreign policy escapades, as Repubs will tend to ignore the economy. I'm not so sure our redistributionist policies lead to economic growth, so:
3. What, exactly, are we selling on the economy side? What did Clinton do that we can replicate?
Do we have a single policy that can be shown to have increased GDP?
4. So all we have left is "social issues".

Matt frames it properly as crass, and I wonder how many of us really feel that way. Maybe we deserve to lose. If we can't defend the place, and the Repugs (arguably) are the party of business (economic growth?) what are we to do?


Posted by: BlueStater5 | Mar 8, 2005 4:35:48 PM

"What did Clinton do that we can replicate?"

Arranged for a third candidate to be in the race, so he could win by a plurality? It's been a LONG time since your party managed to win the Presidency with a majority of the vote, after all.

And, yes, it was "arranged"; Perot, for all his wealth, didn't manage to qualify for the ballot in all that many states. So the rules were waived to put him on the ballot anyway.

These days, of course, there are so many campaign "reforms" the third party movement is practically dead, or else you could have Soros slip ten or twenty million in laundered donations to the LP, and probably pull out another plurality victory in 2008.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 8, 2005 4:56:15 PM

If...the Repugs (arguably) are the party of...economic growth, what are we to do?
How about not giving up on that point, since it's manifestly false.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Mar 8, 2005 4:58:55 PM

"If we can't defend the place, and the Repugs (arguably) are the party of business (economic growth?) what are we to do?"

I'm not surprised you don't understand if you think being the party of big business is the same as being the party of economic growth.

But given the tenor of your post, I'm surprised you don't open up your mouth and drown when it's raining.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 8, 2005 4:59:02 PM

"The lack of the red menace took the issue off the table and enabled the Democrats to return to power..."

Don't you understand? Think about this whole "terrorism" thing. We're talking about a ragtag band of maybe a couple thousand nutjobs who only managed to hit us because we willfully ignored fifty warnings. There doesn't need to be an actual threat in order to drum up another "red scare." They've realized that they can do it whenever they want.

Posted by: Josh Yelon | Mar 8, 2005 5:01:06 PM

"Arranged for a third candidate to be in the race, so he could win by a plurality?"

Will you blame it on Ross Perot when the Dems retake the House in 2006?

Posted by: Petey | Mar 8, 2005 5:02:34 PM

And the notion that the demise of this issue led to Clinton overlooks (a) the fact that Reagan was succeeded by a Republican, (b) the recession toward the end of 41’s term, (c) “read my hips,” (d) “the vision thing,” and (e) Ross Perot.


Ostap: I think you miss the point of Matthew's post. Matthew is saying that the end of the Cold War eliminated one of the GOP's main electoral advantages over the Democrats. That is, if the GOP's main advantages were issues A, B, and C and the Democrats main advantages were issues X, Y, and Z, then eliminating issue A as a salient issue to voters is a net plus to the Democrats.

Hence, the fact that Reagan was succeeded by a Republican is not relevant to the discussion because the Cold War wasn't over in 1988. Moreover, the economic issues might not have been as important as they were in 1992 if the Cold War had still been ongoing (heck, you can just see in this 2004 election that economic issues are less important if there are significant foreign policy problems to deal with). Would Ross Perot have been as popular if people would have to worry about how he would stack up against the leader of the USSR? Probably not.

Posted by: Al | Mar 8, 2005 5:03:54 PM

This explains expiring tax cut provisions:

(a) you get your tax cut which makes your interest group happy; but
(b) it's not permanent; so
(c) they can't vote you out of office on other issues.

It's win win all around.

Posted by: Ugh | Mar 8, 2005 5:05:50 PM

BlueStater5 - Good question, there. Be sure to get back to us if you find an answer. Oh yeah, pack a gun and extra ammo. You're going to be looking for quite awhile so you better figure on living off the land in the meanwhile.

Crazier right-wingers insist that for exactly this reason, keeping poor people poor is the hidden goal of the Democratic party.

The conspiracy nuts think this. Me, I just think that it's natural selection at work. No pol who does anything major against the interests of his party is going to stay influential in that party. Thus, in Democratland, politicos who preach hopelessness and resentment to the disadvantaged tend to be the ones who survive.

Then there's also the fact that without some pretense of "oppression" of one group by another, left-wing politics becomes incoherent. That is not true of the right. The Republicans would do just fine if the poorest person in America lived as well as someone at today's national average of income, education, etc. The Democrats need a permanent "down" class in ways the Republicans don't.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Mar 8, 2005 5:08:02 PM

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