Anyone purporting to tell you the reason John Kerry lost the election is either fooling himself or fooling you. The origins of any close defeat are necessarily multicausal, and any number of different things could have won it for Kerry.
The media chose to focus on the party's “values” problem. To be sure, that problem exists. But the focus on values misses the other important factor in this election: national security. The Democratic Party has simply never recovered the credibility on national-security issues it lost during the Vietnam era.
The security problem is not -- as the right would have it -- that the Democrats are still saddled by Vietnam-era reflexive dovishness and lack the toughness to lead the nation in times of peril. Through the 1990s and the early 21st century, national-security thinkers aligned with the Democratic Party have outlined a tough-minded, sophisticated approach to the world. These thinkers -- Rand Beers, Richard Holbrooke, Richard Clarke, and others -- have emphasized the rising importance of international threats coming from nonstate actors and the need for multinational (and multidimensional) responses to these nontraditional threats, and to the traditional state threats. It's an approach that should have been ideal for confronting the war on terrorism, and should have proven politically appealing in light of the evident failure of the Bush approach.
Since the end of the Cold War, the problem has usually not been that a sound Democratic approach to national security doesn't exist. The problem is that its content—and, indeed, its existence -- continues to be a closely guarded secret of which the American people, the press, and, most damagingly of all, the party's elected officials and candidates for office are almost entirely unaware.
Writing in the December 2002 issue of The Washington Monthly, Heather Hurlburt, a speechwriter in the Clinton administration, related that during the 2000 presidential campaign, she was asked by then–National Security Adviser Sandy Berger to start working on a speech in which he would lay out the Clinton approach to world affairs. That the Clinton administration found itself, at that late date, still facing the need to explain what, exactly, it had been doing through eight years in office -- punctuated by several uses of military force -- is fairly astounding.
Therein lies the origin of the problem faced by the Kerry campaign. George W. Bush, or any other Republican candidate for office, can rely on the existence of a large and fairly well-known set of conservative national-security thinkers, ideas, and policies dating back to the Nixon years. Without knowing anything about any Republican in particular, voters know what Republicans stand for.
On the Democratic side, meanwhile, there's a vacuum. Though new policies and new ideas were formed during the '90s, only a few widely recognized national security figures emerged from his administration, and no grand concepts were put before the public for consideration. As a result, the glaring political vulnerability on national security that left the Democrats almost entirely shut out of the White House from 1969 to 1993 persisted. The end of the Cold War and the perception that foreign policy no longer really mattered allowed Bill Clinton to succeed, temporarily. But even in 2000, the party paid a price for its neglect of foreign policy and national security as part of the communications strategy.
National security was hardly a high-profile issue in 2000. Nevertheless, it played a role in Al Gore's razor-thin defeat. Though there was a very plausible national-security case to be made for Gore, he evidently didn't communicate it to voters; exit polls tell us that the 12 percent of the population that cited “world affairs” as the top issue favored Bush 54 percent to 40 percent, making national security Bush's second-best issue after taxes. The same exit polls showed that 47 percent of the electorate believed the military had weakened under Clinton compared with just 17 percent who believed it had become stronger. (Hurlburt's speech, by the way, was never delivered; the political team didn't think it was important.)
So, through the Clinton era and the Gore candidacy, the Democrats' problem in this arena was largely one of perception. But after September 11, as security returned to the top of the policy agenda, it became one of substance as well. Rather than recognize that security as a hot topic was here to stay for the foreseeable future, the party's elected leaders in Congress hoped to take it off the table by ignoring it. The Clinton-era national-security professionals were out of office, but instead of recognizing a political need for Democratic politicians to begin consulting with the party's experts and to produce a grand strategy for winning the war on terrorism, they did nothing.
Democrats watched -- with occasional carping from the sidelines -- as the administration began outlining and implementing a radically unsound policy agenda. Over time, the failings of the Bush approach became evident and the president's approval rating sank. But the public was never convinced that the opposition had outlined a coherent alternative -- largely because it hadn't.
In late 2003, Democratic Representative Jim Turner of Texas, ranking member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, tried to address the problem [see “A Simple Plan,” TAP, June 2004] and directed his committee staff to begin just such a process of consultation and strategy formation. The resulting document, “Winning The War On Terror,” was solid policy and potentially winning politics. But after its release on April 27, 2004, it sank like a stone. When I spoke to Turner shortly after the plan's release, he had high hopes that party leaders with more clout than he would pick up the banner he'd raised. Instead, they ignored it.
When Kerry finally got around to elaborating his national-security agenda, its content -- from strengthening homeland security, reforming intelligence, expanding special forces, and emphasizing education aid and other programs to building civil society in the Arab world -- was remarkably similar to what Turner had put forward. But by October 2004, the public was still largely unaware of Democratic plans, less a result of Kerry's failings than of the tough position he'd been put in by everything that came before him. Matt Bai's exposition of Kerry's foreign policy for The New York Times Magazine is suffused with a sense of surprise that the writer had discovered a coherent agenda lurking at the heart of Kerry's presidential campaign. Mostly this wasn't Kerry's fault. Rather, it reflected the larger Democratic legacy to which Kerry was heir. (Indeed, James Traub made a similar discovery with regard to the party as a whole in the January 4 issue of the same magazine after attending a foreign policy conference co-sponsored by the Prospect.)
Turning things around in the future doesn't require better campaign tactics or a more charismatic candidate. It requires a change in the party's strategic approach so that national security is no longer an afterthought handled by a small number of specialists. Democrats, and liberals more generally, must recognize that public concern about Islamic radicalism and America's response to it will be a permanent feature of the landscape for the foreseeable future. The brief vacation from foreign policy and national security that American politics took in the 1990s was the exception, and not something that's likely to return. In response, liberals must think about what they want to do substantively regarding national security as a core government function (besides Social Security, the military is, after all, the largest source of federal expenditures), not an unfortunate distraction from the “real” issues. Security policy, like other policy areas, will always be a realm of political machinations, but Democrats must learn to convert electoral positioning and cherry-picking of the latest headlines into tactics that serve some coherent strategy. Most importantly, Democrats outside the community of specialists must acquaint themselves with the lines of thinking present in the party.
Before the election, there was some sign that Democrats were waking up to this. I had lunch with a senior Democratic congressional aide who was working on putting together a cross-chamber group of members to start discussing the substantive issues with one another and with experts inside and outside Congress. In the immediate aftermath of the election, some of this momentum seems to have dissipated in favor of a broad conversation about coping with “values” issues. Such discussions are appropriate, but should not be allowed to displace continued work on the security front.
The election results were disappointing, but they provide an opportunity. My advice to Democrats is this: Take a deep breath, then start considering what you really believe about Iraq, terrorism, military and intelligence reform, and all the rest. Then start talking about it. Don't worry if at first you get attacked or ignored. You must convince people that you have real ideas of your own, not just opportunistic criticisms. So start thinking, then start talking. Then keep at it.
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.