Democrats and terror
On his popular blog, Andrew Sullivan made this case for John Kerry: "9/11 has changed things--even within the Democratic Party"; the war on terror "has to be a bipartisan affair"; Kerry clearly says he won't relent in that war; electing Kerry "would deny the Deaniac-Mooreish wing a perpetual chance to whine and pretend that we are not threatened." These are serious arguments.
But consider the background music here. "Even within the Democratic Party" is an acknowledgment that a good many Americans don't trust the Democrats to run a war on terror. "Has to be a bipartisan affair" blinks the message that the Democrats, as a national party, often seem detached from that war, not just from the campaign in Iraq.
Many of the doubts that hover over Sullivan's case for Kerry are rooted in the value system widely shared among Democrats: Most people are basically good; wars are caused not by evil motives but by misunderstandings that can be talked out; conflict can be overcome by more tolerance and examining of our own faults or by taking disputes to the United Nations. As a personal creed, these benign and humble attitudes are admirable. As the foundation of a policy to confront terrorists who wish to blow up our cities, they are alarming.
These doubts explain why Kerry's two oddest verbal slips--"nuisance" and "global test" --have resonated. In both cases the senator said reasonable things. But the unfortunate term "global test" awakened the suspicion that leading Democrats care more about world opinion and the U.N. than about America's need to protect itself. "Nuisance" strongly implied an inability to be fully serious about terror. So did Kerry's trivializing comparison of terrorism to gambling and prostitution as problems we can't fully eradicate and must learn to live with.
Elites. A wider problem is that a strong segment of the Democratic Party now opposes basic American values once shared across the whole political spectrum. Lawrence Summers, Harvard president and a former cabinet member in the Clinton administration, put this issue on the table when he criticized America's "coastal elites," i.e., the backbone of the Democratic Party, for disregarding mainstream values and urged Harvard to show respect for patriotism and the military. Kerry's people acknowledged Summers's critique when they turned the Democratic National Convention into an improbable flag-waving, pro-military pageant. But this was marketing, not conviction.
At the time of the first antiwar marches, Marc Cooper, contributing editor of the very left magazine The Nation, wrote with alarm that "the American left--or at least a broad swath of it--is more alienated from its own national institutions than its counterparts in any other developed nation. . . . What a warning signal," he wrote, "when you cannot tolerate the sight of your own flag." He warned that the perpetrators of 9/11 must not be viewed as avengers of some oppressed Third World constituency and complained that peace marches were sounding the theme that America somehow invited the 9/11 attacks.
Indeed, that blame-America attitude, once confined to the hard left, has been leaching into the soft left and the Democratic Party. A Pew survey last August reported that 51 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of liberal Democrats believe that America might have motivated the 9/11 attacks by doing something wrong or unfair in dealings with other nations. Admittedly, America's strong support for Israel may have influenced the poll. Still, it's astonishing that so many Democrats are willing to point a finger at their own country for the devastation of 9/11. In the poll, most Americans rejected this notion decisively, and Republicans rejected it overwhelmingly.
In Commentary magazine, Norman Podhoretz wrote of a "trickle-down effect" of virulent anti-Americanism. The anti-Iraq-war demonstrations were a grab bag of contradictory constituencies, many of which had nothing to do with war and peace. But they held out the promise that the hard and soft left, by refusing to criticize each other, could form a powerful alliance. So ordinary Democrats raised almost no objection to the many hate-America themes at these marches. (Few liberals and almost no reporters mentioned that the rallies were organized by unreconstructed Communist-front groups and Maoist fans of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.) Some of the dumber themes--Bush=Hitler and no blood for oil--moved into the mainstream left. Many stars in the Democratic firmament praised Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which carries some of these themes, including the belief that an evil alliance between the Saudis and the Bush family explains the war in Iraq.
Maybe Andrew Sullivan is right that electing John Kerry can bring the Democratic Party fully into the war on terror. But given the forces at work among Democrats, it's surely a gamble.
This story appears in the November 1, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.