How the Democrats Lost Their Spines

E.J. Dionne writes in today’s Washington Post that “The Democratic Party has a self-image problem.”

Talk to Democrats at every level about the strong position the party is in for this fall’s elections and the conversation inevitably ends with a variation of: “Yeah, if we don’t blow it.” Karl Rove’s greatest victory is how much he has spooked Democrats about themselves.

From there Dionne discusses Democrats and fundraising, but I want to dwell longer on the “self-image problem.” The fact is that the self-image problem didn’t start with Karl; the Dems have had a self-image problem for many years. Karl is brilliant at exploiting it, but he didn’t create it.

Conventional wisdom says that the Dems lost their edge as a party because they went all mushy on foreign policy. Peter Beinart certainly has bought this view:

When John Kerry lost in 2004, I started in my despair reading about the late 1940s, the first years of the Cold War. That was the last time America entered a new era in national security. It started very fast in 1945 and 1946. And it was the last period where the country trusted liberals and Democrats to defend it.

As Will Marshall has pointed out, if you look at all presidential elections since the Vietnam War, the disturbing reality is the Democratic Party has only won in those moments when the country turned inward. Carter won in 1976, when the country turned inward after Vietnam. It was the first election since 1948 when national security was not the issue that people told pollsters they were most concerned about. Then Clinton won in 1992, in the aftermath of the Cold War.

The truth is this: Unless the Democratic Party can change its image on national security, its only realistic hope of winning the White House is the hope that the war on terrorism is a passing phenomenon that will be over in a few years.

There’s some truth to what Beinart says, but it’s not the whole picture. Last week I took apart the conventional wisdom that says George McGovern lost to Richard Nixon by a landslide in 1972 because McGovern was anti-war. As I explained, opposition to the war was possibly one of the least important factors in McGovern’s defeat. The same conventional wisdom says that it is the Dems’ delicate sensibilities about war and the military, and their Neville Chamberlain-like tendencies to appease enemies rather than confront them, that gave Republicans the edge in foreign policy issues ever since. And this, “pundits” like Beinart propose, is why voters flock to Republicans whenever national security is a prominent issue. And it’s why, other “pundits” declare, the Dems must avoid association with antiwar types if they expect to win elections.

As Beinart says, the Narrative that Dems are soft on security goes back to the late 1940s and the beginning of the Cold War. But isn’t it odd that, so soon after World War II, Democrats were under fire for being soft? After all, two Democratic Presidents had just led the nation through World War II. And before WWII, it was right-wing isolationists who wanted to ignore or appease Hitler, while Franklin Roosevelt argued that Hitler was a threat who must be confronted. (There are echoes of this old argument in today’s paleoconservative revisionist history that the war in Europe was unnecessary and that FDR knew about Pearl Harbor in advance and didn’t stop it.)

The notion that Republicans are, somehow, traditionally the party of war and Democrats the party of wusses seems particularly odd when you consider that Poppy Bush (41) was the first Republican president to take the nation into a war worthy of the name since William McKinley . Except for the Gulf War, the big wars of the 20th century — World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam — were joined under the leadership of Democratic presidents — Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson.

In fact, when I was a child the old folks often said that Democrats liked to start wars because wars are good for the economy. I haven’t heard that one in a while.

To understand how Dems went from being warriors to wusses, you must understand how Republicans went from isolationism to imperialism. For background, I urge you to read “Stabbed in the Back!” by Kevin Baker in the June issue of Harper’s. A snip:

In the years immediately following World War II, the American right was facing oblivion. Domestically, the reforms of the New Deal had been largely embraced by the American people. The Roosevelt and Truman administrations—supported by many liberal Republicans—had led the nation successfully through the worst war in human history, and we had emerged as the most powerful nation on earth.

Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow liberal internationalists had sounded the first alarms about Hitler, but conservatives had stubbornly—even suicidally—maintained their isolationism right into the postwar era. Senator Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican,” and the right’s enduring presidential hope, had not only been a prominent member of the leading isolationist organization, America First, and opposed the nation’s first peacetime draft in 1940, but also appeared to be as naive about the Soviet Union as he had been about the Axis powers. Like many on the right, he was much more concerned about Chiang Kai-shek’s worm-eaten Nationalist regime in China than U.S. allies in Europe. “The whole Atlantic Pact, certainly the arming of Germany, is an incentive for Russia to enter the war before the army is built up,” Taft warned. He was against any U.S. military presence in Europe even in 1951.

Of course, by 1951 Republican Senator Joe McCarthy’s “red scare” campaign was in full swing, and McCarthy ranted about the Soviets often enough. But Baker argues persuasively that in the postwar years Republicans saved themselves from irrelevancy by propagating the myth of Yalta. The Yalta agreements forged by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin in 1945 met with widespread approval at first. But then along came Alger Hiss, who had been a junior member of the U.S. delegation at Yalta. Accusations that he was a Soviet spy first emerged about eight months later

[T]he exposure of Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent followed, in relatively rapid succession, by the fall of Czechoslovakia’s coalition government to a Soviet-backed coup, the Soviet attainment of an atomic bomb, and the victory of Mao’s Communists over Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang regime in China, cast the entire policy of containment into doubt. Never mind that the right’s own feckless or muddled proposals for fighting the Cold War would not have ameliorated any of these situations. The right swept them into the memory hole and offered a new answer to Americans bewildered by how suddenly their nation’s global preeminence had been diminished: Yalta.

A growing chorus of right-wing voices now began to excoriate our wartime diplomacy. Their most powerful charge, one that would firmly establish the Yalta myth in the American political psyche, was the accusation that our delegation had given over Eastern Europe to the Soviets. According to “How We Won the War and Lost the Peace,” an essay written for Life magazine shortly before the 1948 election by William Bullitt—a former diplomat who had been dismissed by Roosevelt for outing a gay rival in the State Department—FDR and his chief adviser, Harry Hopkins, were guilty of “wishful appeasement” of Stalin at Yalta, handing the peoples of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states over to the Soviet dictator.

The Right became obsessed with the notion that Hiss had somehow manipulated the conference so that the agreements would favor Stalin. Exactly how a young junior delegate accomplished this feat was never clear, and although righties persist in calling Hiss a spy he was never, in fact, convicted of espionage, but of perjury. And Baker argues that a close look at the Yalta negotiations reveals the myths about Hiss to be absurd. No matter; Yalta became a symbol for perfidy and weak-kneed appeasement on the part of Democrats. From there the Republican Party launched a full-court-press campaign — a “compilation of hysterical charges and bald-faced lies,” Baker writes — against the “weakness” of Democratic foreign policy. Events such as Truman’s dismissal of General MacArthur became new chapters in the Narrative of the Spineless Democrats — charges that fall apart under even moderately casual scrutiny, but which took hold in the American public conscious nonetheless.

The charge from the Right that traitors in the State Department “lost” China to Mao — as if it had been theirs to lose, and the people of China had nothing to do with it — led to a purge of Asia experts. This purge had serious consequences; Henry C K Liu wrote for Asia Times:

Robert McNamara, defense secretary under Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, attributed the Vietnam debacle to the thorough purge of China experts by McCarthyism. He wrote, “The irony of this gap – Asian experts – was that it existed largely because the top East Asian and China experts in the State Department – John Patton Davies Jr, John Stewart Service and John Carter Vincent – had been purged during the McCarthy hysteria of the 1950s. Without men like these to provide sophisticated, nuanced insights, we – certainly I – badly misread China’s objectives and mistook its bellicose rhetoric to imply a drive for regional hegemony.”

And by the 1960s the old charge about “losing” China had taken a toll — “Democrats in particular, like Kennedy and Johnson, feared a right-wing backlash should they give up the fight; they remembered vividly the accusatory tone of the Republicans’ 1950 question, ‘Who lost China?'” Andrew J. Rotter wrote.

So Johnson made the catastrophically bad decision to send combat troops to Vietnam. The war was such a disaster that Johnson chose not to run for a second term in 1968 (as had Truman, because of MacArthur and Korea, in 1952). In the Humphrey-Nixon campaign it seems to me that Nixon was the “peace” candidate, since he was the candidate who promised to end the war. Yet somehow Democratic defeats in 1968 and 1972 are attributed to Democrats taking an antiwar position.

Baker discusses the way the Right “processed” Vietnam at some length. It was, he says, a war the Right had been clamoring for. When it went sour, the Right did not admit that the war in Vietnam had been, fundamentally, a bad idea. Instead, the Nixon Administration and the Republican establishment successfully turned the antiwar movement and “liberal elites” into scapegoats. The antiwar protesters were traitors who were aiding the enemy. That Nixon made this charge stick at the same time he was stumbling around looking for a way out of Vietnam is a testament to his political genius.

Baker also argues that Nixon escalated the Right’s foreign policy campaign into permanent cultural war. Which takes us to our current problem —

On domestic issues as well as ones of foreign policy, from Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queens” through George Wallace’s “pointy-headed intellectuals”; from Lee Atwater’s characterization of Democrats as anti-family, anti-life, anti-God, down through the open, deliberate attempts of Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove to constantly describe opponents in words that made them seem bizarre, deviant, and “out of the mainstream,” the entire vernacular of American politics has been altered since Vietnam. Culture war has become the organizing principle of the right, unalterably convinced as it is that conservatives are an embattled majority, one that must stand ever vigilant against its unnatural enemies—from the “gay agenda,” to the advocates of Darwinism, to the “war against Christmas” last year.

This has become such an ingrained part of the right wing’s belief system that the Bush Administration has now become the first government in our nation’s history to fight a major war without seeking any sort of national solidarity. Far from it. The whole purpose of the war in Iraq—and the “war on terrorism”—seems to have been to foment division and to win elections by forcing Americans to choose between starkly different visions of what their country should be.

Again, I urge you to read the entire Baker article, because it is excellent, and because it puts our current political mess in an entirely different light.

I’m planning another post to tie together Baker’s article with some ideas in my “Don’t Blame McGovern” post from last week to say more about the Democrats’ self-identity problem. I hope to have that post published by tomorrow. Maybe this evening.

34 thoughts on “How the Democrats Lost Their Spines

  1. Interesting history. The Dems lost their edge and their confidence during Reagan’s first term, when Reagan’s team so successfully exploited the symbolism of the presidency and manipulated the media into creating a hugely popular president. Seeing Reagan’s immense popularity, The Dems began to act as Junior Republicans, and that is how I referred to them. If you recall, they tried to out-Republican the Republicans on all the major issues, and in the process, forgot how to be Democrats. Some are finally waking up. Casting Lierberman out is certainly a breath of fresh air and a sign that the long Dem slumber is over.

  2. The Republican position is: “we never met a war we didn’t love”. If that’s a winning position, that’s extremely sad. And I’d be proud to be on the “losing” side.

  3. I like how you always put things in historical perspective. The dems are going to have a tightrope to walk between the Iraq disaster debate and the national security one. The republicans are only going to get more shrill as the election nears.

    It seems the dems are always on the defensive. They need to find some offense. Try to get the republicans to try and defend their outrageous incompetence. But, as you posted earlier, the republicans are masters of the non-sequiter.

    Ideas and intentions are important. But, as we all know, marketing is everything. The republicans are masters of marketing. We need to market our ideas more effectively. All of our intelligent reasoning and devotion to a better way won’t mean anything if we can’t relate it to the average American. Most people don’t surf blogs and read multiple newspapers. They get the occasional soundbite or headline. They are driven by basic fears and desires. That is why the republican message is so effective. They define the fear (scary muslims, gays, immigrants, etc…) and offer themselves up as the solution. Democrats need to concisely define the fear (loss of constitutional rights, homeland security, crumbling healthcare, vanishing middle class, etc..) and set themselves up as the solution.

    It’s all marketing.

  4. The Dems began to act as Junior Republicans, and that is how I referred to them. If you recall, they tried to out-Republican the Republicans on all the major issues, and in the process, forgot how to be Democrats.

    Yes, I plan to go into more detail on exactly that point in the next installment. This post was just the warm-up.

  5. Good, but diagnosing the problem while all well and good, does not help us overcome it. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that myself.

    (Uh, that’s not a challenge I just find your views helpful and interesting)

  6. Yes it is all about the marketing, not about reality. Perhaps we should now ask ” Who lost Iraq” and blame somebody, a whole host of somebodies( the entire right wing and Repub party), since that seems to be necessary to turn peoples’ perceptions around.

  7. I want to go back and read/mull the articles you cite, thank you for bringing this out. I never knew this history about the Dems and Rs before, just the effects.

    I did want to make one point, that the Dems are starting to find their spine, starting to find their voice. I was very heartened by this interview of Ned Lamont by Chris Wallace here.

    There’s just something about his clarity, calmness and fearlessness about finally giving voice to the obvious, that we have so badly needed.

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  9. Wow, great post and great writing from Baker. I especially appreciated his phrase, “specificity is anethema to any myth”. Also, in explaining the decline in the Repug myth about dolchstoss as it relates to Iraq, and to Bush’s drop in the polls, Baker says that Bush never asked the nation to sacrifice and move onto a ‘war footing’, and therefore ended up not proffering a hero [America] who could be claimed to suffer ‘betrayal’. So, no hero, therefore, no betrayal.
    Also, back using the [specificity is anethema] point, the specifics of this Iraq boondoggle all involve the Repugs holding the reins of powers of government……. so the notion that Dems could be responsible for the boondoggle of Iraq is just too far out there to be credible.
    Dems need to be saying, “We want heroes who are strong AND smart.”

  10. It seems to me, Maha, that you’re letting the Democrats have some grace by describing their spinelessness in a historical perspective. No matter what events have overtaken them in the past, there is no excuse their current spinelessness. It’s common knowledge at this point in time that the war in Iraq, and the subsequent trampling of our Constitution that has taken place since 9/11 has been nothing more than a political power-play in which Bush and his minions deceived the Democrats in power, and the American people.
    Many of us were taken in by Bush, we held a basic belief in honesty and we got burned for our trust. And if we can figure out the deceit that transpired once the WMD’s didn’t materialize…than the Democrats who hold their tongues after the deception became apparent aren’t worthy of a defense of past history. I quess what I’m trying to say is that the point where they should be judged for a spine starts when Bush conceded his deciet in announcing there were no WMD’s ( didn’t find them?). If you recall…They KNEW Saddam had them.

  11. It seems to me, Maha, that you’re letting the Democrats have some grace by describing their spinelessness in a historical perspective.

    There’s more to this. I’m still writing the next segment, which will tie more threads together. Note that I’m NOT making excuses for the Dems, just explaining how they lost their way. Once I’ve got all the causes explained I’ll have some suggestions for how they can turn it around.

  12. When I get home, I going to send something like this to the local newspaper:

    With an election coming up, I sure would like to ask my representative in Congress, Mr. Shimkus, “Who lost Iraq?”

    We have had a Republican House of Representatives, a Republican Senate (except for a few months) and a Republican administration since well before 9-11. Why, oh why, then has $300 billion been spent just to create a civil war in Iraq?

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  14. “Who lost Iraq?”

    I like it. And pretty soon we’ll be able to expand that into “Who lost the Middle East?”

  15. Hey Chief [#14], if Shimkus is your rep, you must live awfully close to me. LaHood is my rep. I went to Shimkus’ local office with a group protesting the Iraq war……those of us going there did not get to see Shimkus, but rather his young aide. What I most remember was the aide’s head tilted dramatically to the right…and, in a moment of quiet, I made a comment, “Do you realize that your head tilts a lot to the right?” My comment amused all, including the aide who said, “Oh, yeah, my chiropractor says that, too.”

  16. It is a peculiarity of empire to think that no war could be lost if some traitor hadn’t stabbed us in the back. Think about that as a national premise — it is breath-takingly ahistorical.

    Can anyone lead this nation out of its delusions?

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  23. To this day, some of us think the relatively isolationist Taft was right to oppose the emerging Cold War, and the GOP was right to resist WWII, and the Democrats were wrong not only about the Cold War but about both World Wars.

    (McKinley was wrong about Spain, Cuba, and the Philippines. Polk was wrong about both Texas and Mexico. And the gratuitous attempt to seize Canada in the war of 1812 was a ridiculous error.) is a hotbed of paleocon and libertarian isolationist sentiment, as you doubtless know. But many progressives agree with much of what they say about America’s past, and present, wars.

    Still, you write very lucid and succinct history. Sorry I didn’t find your blog earlier.

  24. Your history leaves out one huge realignment that can’t have been inconsequential: the Democrats supporting civil rights in the 1960s, and the Republicans under Nixon becoming the party of the south.

    This is not a realignment in foreign policy, but it changed vastly the composition of Democratic and Republican constituents. Is it possible that this also forms an important part of the story?

  25. I am coming to it late, but this is an excellent post indeed. I had read the Baker piece, and yours actually frames its point in a larger historical context. Illuminating! I can’t claim expertise but I have been thinking about this topic quite a but lately.

    There is a key thread developing through your narrative, which is not new, I think, but is rarely made this clear: for the right wing, foreign policy “strategy” has always been a direct extension of the domestic political struggle — nothing else.

    Have you thought about writing a series or perhaps a book-length analysis on this? Makes me cry that overrated sycophants like Peter Beinart are showered with obsequious platitudes at the same time pieces like yours are being written basically for free.

  26. When the history of the late 19th centiry and the 20th century is written an underlying theme will be the use of the right and/or moneied interests to puff up the left – unions and the working man, the Palmer Raids of the Wilson era through to the overestimation of the Soveiet Unions strength in the Cold War era to further their own selfish self interest.

  27. Barbara, you need a larger platform. I can’t believe the quality of analysis that I run into by chance here. I read another comment two doors up saying the same thing–and it was what was going through my head the whole time I was reading.

    I’m not only saying this for your sake, I’m saying it for the sake of the level of education in the general public; or namely, what it is lacking. This is a problem we need to approach, and find a solution to, as a group.

  28. Interesting reading but what really bothers me is that the *REAL* problem lies in politics in general. The whole lot of our politicians need to be “un-elected”, bringing in new batches of politicians time and again until they all start getting the message that “we ain’t gonna take it no more”.

    Dems and Repubs alike are all guilty of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” while us tax payers continue to itch like crazy.

    Politicians in general no longer look for the right solution and then persuing that, instead they are intent on finger pointing (360 degrees of it) and slapping band-aids on severed arteries that continue to bleed this country to death.

    Lastly, we need to force down the throats of our politicians that there will be no more homesteading. No more Ted Kennedys, Robert Byrds, Ted Stevens and Oren Hatches. We want term limitations on our politicians because so many of our congress men and women have gotten out of touch with the realities of life on the streets.

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