In Afghanistan, the Democrats now have an opportunity — which is also a problem — that their past objectives may let blow away. The opportunity is to reclaim their old role as a party of power, established in the last century by a cadre of center-left hawks.
Franklin Roosevelt was a ferocious hot warrior. Harry Truman bombed Japan, negotiated the transition into the Cold War with Russia in a stunning burst of will and creative diplomacy. He was backed from the start by then-Congressman John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., who ran on the missile gap, threatened pre-emptive war over missiles in Cuba and never met an arms program he thought was good enough.
Then Lyndon Johnson let Vietnam turn into a quagmire, and it all fell apart very fast. George McGovern cried, “Come home, America!” and Jimmy Carter — nominated in 1976 as the anti-McGovern — nonetheless said his country had an “inordinate fear” of the Communist empire, was stunned when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and was unable to cope with what happened later when Iran seized the American embassy in Tehran and held its inhabitants hostage for more than 12 months.
Ronald Reagan claimed Walter Mondale didn’t see the “bear in the forest,” and George H.W. Bush charged that Michael Dukakis wouldn’t use force to punish aggression, a claim proven correct two years later when a large majority of Democrats in the Senate voted against his decision to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
The first Iraq War led Bill Clinton to pick Al Gore from the small pool of 10 Democrats who backed the invasion, as proof that he was indeed a “new kind of Democrat,” or rather the old kind who had existed before the Vietnam War. But the Cold War had ended before he took office, Sept. 11 was far in the future and for most of his presidency he faced a Republican Congress.
When President Barack Obama took power, it was the first time since 1980 that Democrats, having now won both the White House and Congress, had control of a country at war.
The problem is that for most of the years between Obama and Carter, the Democrats’ main objective seemed to be being defeatist without being nailed for it — an effort which took most of their effort and time. The poster boy was John Kerry, who was for every war before being against it, jumping on board when it seemed advantageous and denouncing the war when times changed.
He went to Vietnam planning to be JFK in the Solomon Islands, but became famous for calling his comrades war criminals. He voted against Gulf War I, regretted it when the war was won quickly, and voted for Gulf War II only because he thought (in 2002) that a “no” vote would cost him his chance to be president.
His campaign manager, Bob Shrum, freely admits this, and says he was far from alone in his party: “With a few exceptions … Democrats had suppressed their doubts and been bullied into voting with Bush, overcompensating for their fear that otherwise, the party would be seen as weak.”
John Edwards, his running mate, had done the same thing. Later, they claimed they wanted to give Bush the power to use force, but didn’t want him to use it.
Typically, Shrum doesn’t blame them for being cowards and hypocrites, but blames Bush for causing them trouble by making them vote. He also said that in 2004 the Democrats elevated Afghanistan as the “good” war, not because they believed in it, but as a new line of attack against Bush.
This let them be pro-war in every case, except in the one we were fighting. Then, Iraq turned around, Afghanistan worsened, and they — surprise! — won the election. Now Afghanistan is their war to fight, and they have to handle it. Instead, they’re deciding Pakistan is the problem, and they want to drop the whole thing.
Obama says this war must be won, and maybe he means it. But he has a party that no longer knows how to be serious. In Afghanistan, the Democrats have the “good” war they were seeking. But now that they have it, it’s no longer “good.”
Examiner columnist Noemie Emery is contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of “Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.”