Bush = Acheson?

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If you want to read a piece of first-rate writing, take a look at Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis's review of Robert Beisner's biography of Dean Acheson in the New Republic. Gaddis agrees with Beisner's argument that Acheson was the real architect of Harry Truman's Cold War policy. But he also recognizes Acheson's flaws. He makes much (as I did in my 1990 book Our Country) of Acheson's statement in January 1950 that "I will not turn my back on Alger Hiss"–just after the government of which Acheson was a part had convicted Hiss on charges of perjury for denying that he was a Soviet spy.

And he agrees with many critics, including many Republicans at the time, that Acheson erred when he gave a speech that month leaving South Korea out of our "defense perimeter" in East Asia. The first statement left Truman with the unhappy alternatives of accepting the readily proffered resignation of an undeniably able and loyal secretary of state or of taking on a political liability that would be exploited by many Republicans, not all of them as unsavory as Joe McCarthy. The second statement may, as Gaddis notes, have led Stalin and Mao to approve North Korea's invasion of the South in June 1950.

Gaddis opens and closes his review with a look at the Democrats today. George W. Bush, he says, has stolen the Democrats' old theme of liberal internationalism by calling for the promotion of freedom and democracy around the world. It's part of an old American tradition, he says, of parties stealing their opponents' ideas. But Democrats are responding by renouncing their old tradition and denouncing Bush root and branch!

They have responded to the first Republican president to have become a liberal interventionist by quivering–and blogging–with rage. They have offered no plan for building on the Bush Doctrine and moving on. It's as if they're imitating the Republicans of the 1930s, who quivered with rage at Roosevelt (blogging had not been invented yet) while neglecting his warnings about tyrants, as well as his vision of what a world without them might be.

Here are his concluding paragraphs:

More than anything else, the borrowing of ideas–often without attribution–is what has spared the United States the proliferation of single-issue parties that so often paralyzes politics elsewhere. Political plagiarism makes big tents possible. If Reagan and Bush could borrow from Truman and Acheson, then it's hard to see why Democrats today should not borrow from Reagan and Bush. To say that nothing can be learned from an opponent's ideas is to claim infallibility for one's own, a pretension to which even Acheson never aspired.

The Bush administration, like the Truman administration, has given its supporters much to apologize for and its critics much to denounce. It is from those gifts, which reflect the recalcitrance of reality when strategy tries to shift it, that the Democrats will again rise as the Republicans once did. The only question is how long it will take Democrats to remember how to do this.


Sage advice. The National Chairmen

Over the past week, both Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean and Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman have stopped by U.S. News for on-the-record interviews over lunch. Here are partial transcripts of Dean's remarks and Mehlman's. Interestingly, Dean's interview was scheduled for 1:30 p.m., Mehlman's for 11:30 a.m.: Democrats are evening people, and Republicans are morning people. To the transcripts let me add a few observations.

First, these are men with very different personalities. Dean is cheerful, laughs a lot, is more ready to respond off-message. Mehlman is intense, relentless, passionately hammering home his arguments. They agreed on some things: Dean said there is "a huge opportunity" for Democrats in the Southwest (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada). Mehlman said Republicans "need to make aggressive efforts" there. Dean was careful not to claim that the Democrats have the '06 elections locked up. Referring to his own presidential campaign, he said, with a grin, "Anything can happen in politics." Mehlman was careful not to claim that Republicans were surging.

I asked Dean when he first started thinking that he really could be the next president of the United States. After all, very few politicians have ever really had that experience. After the big rally he had in his "sleepless in Seattle" tour in the summer of 2003, he said. His biggest mistake, he volunteered, was not taking Bill Clinton's advice that he convert himself from an insurgent candidate to "a candidate who acted like a president." But wasn't he worried about the responsibilities that might fall on him?

Fascinating answers. I hadn't thought before that being a physician equipped you more to take on the responsibilities of the presidency, but it makes a certain amount of sense: Physicians have to make decisions every day that could be the difference between life and death, and governors sometimes do, too. Maybe Bill Frist feels the same way. (Dean was the only physician to be a serious candidate for president since Leonard Wood, who lost the Republican nomination in the "smoke-filled room" in 1920.) But there's also a certain tension between Dean's two versions of his biggest mistake. Is acting like an insurgent the same thing as being risk averse? Maybe, in the circumstances.

What about '08? Dean thinks that the Republicans will never nominate a candidate like Rudy Giuliani, who is for gay rights and abortion rights, and said that Mitt Romney has "changed back and forth" on such issues. He said that the Democrats' new primary schedule, adding contests in Nevada and South Carolina between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, will mean that Iowa won't single-handedly determine the nominee, as he thinks it did in '04. I think he's right about '04, but I'm not sure he's right about '08.

Mehlman laid out a series of reasons why '06 doesn't look like '94: fewer open seats; (most) targets in the toughest races are battle tested; Republicans had a positive agenda in '94; Democrats never saw it coming in '94; '94 was a referendum on Bill Clinton. He pointed out that recent polls showing Democrats way ahead on the generic vote for Congress had samples that had much higher percentages of self-identified Democrats than we have seen in any election in the past 25 years. He admitted that Republican Party identification might be down 2 or 3 percentage points from what it was in '04 (the NEP exit poll came out 37 percent Democratic, 37 percent Republican) and that if party identification had changed as much as those recent polls suggested, Republicans would do very poorly on election night.

Mehlman is a believer in metrics. He said that he gets weekly reports, with numbers, on volunteer recruitment, door-to-door contacts, voter contacts, and media content analyses, and that "in the last week, the reports have been fantastic."

What about '08? He didn't have much to say, except to note that Hillary Rodham Clinton arouses a lot of passion in voters "on their side and on our side." On Republicans, "As referee, I won't speculate. A lot of strong candidates are running."