On the evening of January 4, I had dinner with a small group of progressive intellectuals at a Capitol Hill restaurant. The question at hand, though unstated, was obvious: What ails the Democrats, and what's to be done about it? As wine was poured and salad moved to entrée to dessert, many ideas -- most of them good -- were put forward. Conspicuous for its absence until I brought it up, however, was the party's single biggest problem area: national security.

Certainly there are ways that John Kerry could have won the 2004 election without improving his performance on security issues, most notably by doing better than a dismal 18 percent among the 22 percent of voters who told exit pollsters that “moral values” were the most important issue in the campaign. But there's a basic problem of logic here. Voters who think that maintaining traditional norms about gender roles and sexual behavior should be a top priority of the federal government probably ought to be voting Republican. This just isn't what liberals believe, so people who do believe it would be acting irrationally to vote Democratic.

But Kerry's 40 percent share among the third of the electorate citing either Iraq or terrorism as their top concern is another matter entirely. Liberals most emphatically do believe that the government should keep the population safe from foreign threats. Voters who think that this is important are voters that any self-respecting political party ought to aspire to win. And if Democrats do figure out how to win their votes, they'll start winning presidential elections. Mere parity on the topic of national security would have won Kerry the election, rendering whatever other political problems exist with the Democrats on matters of style or substance irrelevant.

About a month earlier, the Democratic Leadership Council's (DLC) Will Marshall, head of the group's Progressive Policy Institute, made it clear that some are keenly aware of the central importance of national security to today's politics by organizing a lunchtime discussion of New Republic Editor Peter Beinart's post-election call to arms, “A Fighting Faith.” In it, Beinart analogized contemporary progressive politics to the situation obtaining in the mid-1940s, when Democrats were split between Harry Truman's Cold Warrior wing and a group around Henry Wallace that regarded confrontation with the Soviet Union as, at best, a distraction from more pressing matters and, at worst, dangerous and counterproductive. Cast in the role of today's Wallacites were opponents of the Afghan war, like Michael Moore and the founders of MoveOn.org, with the implication that the Democrats would not enjoy success until the party was purged of these insidious doves (MoveOn's organizers deny that they opposed the Afghan war). Marshall agreed, proclaiming that the party “is inherently divided” on matters of national security and that the victory of his centrist faction was vital to the continued health of American progressivism.

This image of a party divided is quite universal, even if enthusiasm for the Marshall-Beinart course of treatment is not. But it's sharply at odds with underlying realities. Yes, progressives -- both Democratic politicians and liberal journalists and intellectuals -- were split over the Iraq War, and yes, that's an important matter. But beyond that, and looking forward, it's hard to detect any major substantive disagreements. Over the past three years, policy recommendations have emanated from various progressive institutions that cover a range of positions on the ideological spectrum. And what's most remarkable about them -- from the DLC's Progressive Internationalism, to The Century Foundation's Defeating the Jihadists, to the Center for American Progress' Failing Grades, to the House Homeland Security Committee minority staff's Winning the War on Terror -- has not been their differences but their similarities. Over and over again one hears that the Bush administration has been unduly focused on the problem of hunting down and killing individual terrorists and insufficiently attentive to the threat of a catastrophic nuclear attack.

Progressive Internationalism describes denying terrorists access to weapons of mass destruction as “the most important line of defense in the age of terror.” Defeating the Jihadists, quoting the Bush administration's own official “National Security Strategy,” deems nuclear terrorism the “gravest danger” facing the country. Both note the irony that the administration has been much stronger on anti-proliferation rhetoric than substance. “Democrats will pursue a collective approach that engages both the United Nations and North Korea's neighbors,” says the DLC. “The United States should pursue international and bilateral sanctions against proliferating states such as North Korea,” says The Century Foundation. Both recommend allocating more funds to the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and expanding its ambit beyond the former Soviet Union. On the much-debated subject of democracy promotion, the party's right wing thinks that “the United States should support people struggling to build an independent civil society, while orchestrating international pressure on ruling elites to reform.” The left, meanwhile, believes that “the long-term interests of the United States will best be served by actively influencing [friendly] governments to eliminate the causes for popular unrest, particularly when they involve civil liberties infringements and human rights abuses.” Progressive Internationalism states that preemptive war should be “an option,” but that George W. Bush has relied too heavily on it. Defeating the Jihadists says it will “likely remain an important part of American counterterrorism policy in the future.” Hard to find the differences there.

This is not to say that no division exists. It certainly does: Liberals suffer from an intense and lingering bitterness over the Iraq War. Kerry's muddled position helped paper over that division during the campaign, but in the wake of his defeat it become a source of further conflict, with hawks arguing that he should have been more clearly hawkish and doves that more forthright opposition would have paved the road to victory. Prominent liberal bloggers Kevin Drum and Duncan Black both reacted with instinctive hostility to the news that Kenneth Pollack, author of the influential The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, had a new book out on Iran. Never mind that Pollack's policy proposal -- more vigorous multilateral diplomacy -- is hardly objectionable to the liberal point of view.

This bitterness is unfortunate. Simply put, far too large a proportion of the party's leading politicians and national-security hands supported the war for the doves to marginalize them, and far too large a proportion of the party's voters opposed it for the hawks to marginalize them. But healing the breach won't be enough, because the party's political weakness on national security far predates the Iraq War. Tempting as it is to look at John Kerry's flawed campaign and flawed personality -- The reason people thought he was a flip-flopper,” one foreign-policy adviser to the campaign told me, “was that he kept flip-flopping” -- and conclude that he was personally responsible for the problem, the reality is otherwise. The sheer historical scope of the problem must be recognized. Democrats have been losing the national-security issue for decades, and it's unlikely that it's merely a coincidence that Democrats keep nominating candidates who aren't persuasive on the topic.

The problems in Kerry's campaign reflected deeper structural problems inside Democratic politics. Despite a reasonably broad consensus among left-of-center security hands about what should be done, the party's political operatives are unable to turn that consensus into a compelling political narrative. Democrats are reluctant to address security issues except when forced to do so, and, as a result, they discover that when they are so forced, they aren't very good at it. Political failure breeds further reluctance, which breeds further failure -- no one develops the relevant ability to spin security for partisan gain, and because no one can win on security, no one learns how to campaign on it. For example, I asked a leading policy expert who worked with the campaign how Kerry managed to come up with a statement on Iran that was basically nonsensical and didn't reflect the views of anyone who would have been in charge of the topic in a Kerry administration (in the first debate, he said that “the United States should have offered the opportunity to provide [Iran] the nuclear fuel, test them, see whether or not they were actually looking for it for peaceful purposes”). “The consultants,” I was told, “didn't think it was a voting issue.”

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On one level, the consultants were right: Voters did not make up their minds last November based on who had the better Iran policy. Similarly, the political aides who decided that there was no need to criticize Bush's hypocritical and ineffective democracy-promotion strategy were no doubt correct that relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia weren't “voting issues.” When the September 11 commission's best-selling final report essentially adopted the consensus liberal critique of Bush's war on terrorism as its Chapter 12, the Kerry campaign quickly endorsed the commission's work. But aside from the relatively minor issue of creating a national-intelligence directorship, the campaign barely mentioned any of the recommendations. One commission staffer involved in the drafting of Chapter 12 told me that as far as he could tell, the campaign staff did not try to seriously communicate with the commission regarding the substance of the recommendations that were, ostensibly at least, to be the center of Kerry's war on terrorism. Again, not a voting issue.

It would be nice to be able to say that these were eccentric decisions on the part of the Kerry campaign, but that probably is not the case. Rather, they reflect the ingrained belief of the Democrats' consultant class that the key to campaign success is to focus on poll-tested messages that address the voters' handful of top concerns. Polls showed that voters were concerned that things were going badly in Iraq, so Kerry talked about it. They showed that voters were concerned about America's relations with its allies, so he talked about that. This approach may work well enough on domestic issues where the goodies -- tax credits, Social Security checks, new schools, lower insurance premiums -- are concrete and separable.

But national security is not like that. The politics of national security are dominated by an essentially metaphorical competition over strength, will, and determination. The key is that, as New America Foundation senior fellow Mark Schmitt has written on his Web log, the Decembrist, “It's not what you say about the issues, it's what the issues say about you.” Americans expect the president to keep them safe, and a candidate who doesn't do enough to emphasize security comes across as someone who's not up to the job. Voters may not have been hankering for a candidate to promise to expand the regular Army and double the number of special-operations troops. But those were planks of the Kerry platform, and if he had emphasized them, it would have cut against unflattering stereotypes of Democratic weakness and transformed public perception of the party into one that sees liberals as the ones prepared to dedicate real resources to national security and not just talk a good game.

Ostentatious condemnations of Bush's unilateralism, by contrast, accomplish little. Indeed, though an emphasis on getting more help from allies may have polled well, it also reinforced precisely the caricature that the Republicans sought to create of a Democratic administration whose foreign policy would be centered on “permission slips” and “global tests.” Bush was -- and is -- able to get away with murky and incoherent approaches to issues like Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea because Republicans are fundamentally trusted to keep America safe. For Democrats, addressing these second-tier issues would provide an opportunity to change the way the party is seen. In 1992, voters were not necessarily crying out for a candidate who would “end welfare as we know it.” But Bill Clinton's promise to do so altered perceptions of the Democratic Party and allowed Clinton to get a hearing for his ideas on other fronts.

If Kerry's handlers seemed unprepared to handle the national-security issue, that's largely because they were unprepared. Presidential races are rare, and operatives cut their teeth in national politics running campaigns for the House and the Senate. Because the national-security issue is of limited relevance to these races, and because it's been a weak issue for Democrats for decades, the party's operatives have learned to avoid it as much as possible. On the Republican side, conversely, it's been a source of strength, and clever campaign managers have sought opportunities to turn the discussion to foreign and military policy. This has granted them a reservoir of experience and habits that have served them well at the presidential level, where the topic can't be dodged.

Democrats have gained no such experience, and it shows -- not merely in the relatively inept handling of the security issue but in a near-pathological reluctance to engage it. Every time Kerry seemed to get the upper hand in the foreign-policy debate, the papers would be filled with advice from (often anonymous) party strategists that now was the time to “pivot” away from national security and toward jobs and health care rather than to go in for the kill. The thinking here was bizarre: Why disengage from a debate you're winning? The very suggestion only served to underscore Bush's message: Don't trust the Democrats to keep you safe. After all, they don't seem to trust themselves to handle the topic consistently.

Misleading lessons from the Clinton years have exacerbated the problem. A generation of liberals who saw their greatest successes in the 1990s has convinced itself that that era -- after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when foreign-policy questions were less important -- was normal. During the recent period of post-election commiserations, three friends on the Hill outlined the Democrats' path to resurgence, but they did so with a crucial qualification: It would happen only after the salience of the security issue declines. Re-reading John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira's popular book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, after the election, I noticed the same thing. The majority was repeatedly prophesied to emerge “when memories of 9-11 fade,” or equivalent formulations. But while memories of the attacks as such are likely to fade (and indeed have to a reasonable extent), the salience of the issue isn't going anywhere. A study by Democratic pollster Mark Penn has shown that public interest in world affairs reached a low point in the 1990s not seen since the Great Depression. Democrats can hope that it happens again, but hope is not a plan. Besides, history suggests that it will not. The Clinton years were highly unusual; foreign policy has consistently been a prominent element of presidential campaigns since America's emergence as a major world power in the Spanish-American War, and will probably continue to be for the foreseeable future. The only reliable method of pushing it off the agenda is a 1930s-style economic collapse, but hoping for something like that would be perverse and unrealistic.

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Sadly, the party's capacity to change this dynamic is rather limited. As I've previously noted, Clinton missed the opportunity to clearly articulate a liberal national-security strategy and bestow upon the party a corps of recognized and respected speakers on the issue [see “Insecurity Blanket,” TAP, December 2004]. Generating new cadres from the institutional base of a congressional minority will be difficult, and the party doesn't seem especially inclined to try. People are busy (with good reason) combating Bush's plans to destroy Social Security, and congressional leaders are focused (again for understandable reasons) on issues that promise to pay dividends in the 2006 midterms.

Beyond Congress, the picture is much the same: Security is someone else's problem. New initiatives under way to train a new generation of progressive activists often offer civil liberties as a potential area of interest, but not national security or foreign policy. Of course civil liberties are important, but a strategy to ensure that the government doesn't go too far in combating terrorism only makes sense as part of a strategy that will ensure that the government also goes far enough. Liberals may think it should go without saying that we, too, want to keep America safe, but in practice it doesn't go without saying. A movement interested in preparing to defend the United States from its own security apparatus but not against terrorism is inviting the attack that it cares more about protecting terrorists than their victims. Worse, it deprives itself of the ability to cultivate people who will be able to articulate a progressive message on national security in the future.

The lack of credible national-security spokespeople who are willing to be partisan is a problem that's already severe. The Clinton administration, in part by choice and in part due to circumstances (there had been no Democratic administration since 1980, and its foreign policy was not a stunning success), tended to draw its national-security personnel from academia or the ranks of the professionals in the foreign service, the intelligence community, and the military. This cultivation of professionals, as opposed to the hyper-partisanship of the Bush team, has had certain salutary effects in terms of policy. But it has also had drawbacks. Bush's key people -- from Dick Cheney to Donald Rumsfeld to Condoleezza Rice and on down through the second and third tiers -- came up through the ranks of specifically Republican policy circles, giving them the ability to connect their policy vision with a strong political one. These circles include experience inside the Bush Senior, Reagan, and even Nixon-Ford administrations, but also work on the Hill, where Republican ties to the defense-contractor lobby create incentives for members and staffers to get involved.

Democratic foreign-policy hands, by contrast, tend to see themselves as nonideological technocrats, and prefer to remain aloof from partisan battles, a tendency that reinforces and is reinforced by party operatives' dislike of the national-security issue. When out of power, they hang their hats at places like the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -- think tanks of the old school adverse to the rough-and-tumble of politics. Brookings' fellows, as one of the institution's staffers explained to me, are discouraged from thinking of themselves and defining themselves in public as a specifically liberal, progressive, or Democratic group of thinkers, even though this is rather plainly what they are.

This official stance of nonpartisanship stands in sharp contrast to that of the foreign- and defense-policy groups at conservative think tanks like The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Though these groups are officially nonpartisan for tax purposes, they make no bones about where they stand on the ideological spectrum. They produce not only a chorus of cheerleaders for Republican policies (and detractors of Democratic ones) but a reasonably consistent vision of international affairs that's explicitly linked to an overall conservative worldview. When self-conscious liberals avoid national security, and liberal national-security hands avoid an ideological self-conception, the public sees only a void that is all too often filled with outdated stereotypes, extreme and unrepresentative voices, and smears and caricatures propagated by the right.

The roots of this situation really do lie in the tumultuous late '60s and early '70s. But it has less to do with the “Vietnam syndrome,” as is often supposed, than with the changes to the structure of the Democratic Party adopted by that era's reformers. The party as such -- that is, the white men in the smoke-filled rooms -- was essentially disbanded and reconceived as a collection of interest groups speaking for their own constituencies: labor, minorities, feminists, environmentalists, and so on.

The upshot is that no one is charged with looking after a topic, like national security, that concerns everyone, rather than anyone in particular. There exists no major group in Washington that defines itself as both progressive and primarily concerned with the topics of foreign policy and security. Until this is changed, it will be hard for Democrats to engage with the subject as they must -- at every level, and not merely in presidential campaigns. It will also be all but impossible to build a broad, thematic case on security policy -- one that raises the way in which the right's tax-cut jihad at home starves the government of resources needed to fight the real one around the world, and questions the fitness of a movement with an ambivalent view toward theocracy at home to combat it abroad -- rather than a laundry list of narrow, technocratic criticisms.

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That said, things are improving in small but real ways. The Century Foundation has grown increasingly involved in security policy over the past several years. The Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in the Heritage–AEI mold, has been operating for somewhat more than a year now, albeit on a smaller scale than the right's outfits or the more established, less ideological foundations.

The basic elements are in place. In consultation with outside experts like Rand Beers, Ivo H. Daalder, Michele Flournoy, Jessica Matthews, Michael O'Hanlon, Susan Rice, and Peter Singer, the House Democrats endorsed a series of proposals for “Winning the War on Terror” in April of last year. When the Senate Democrats unveiled their top 10 agenda items for the new Congress on January 24, they came up with similar recommendations: Increase the Army's strength by 30,000 and the Marines' by 10,000 to help an overburdened military cope with the challenges of post-conflict reconstruction, while adding 2,000 new special-operations forces to take the battle to the terrorists. Democrats are proposing “additional funding for basic education programs to help nations provide a clear alternative to the madrassas that preach radical Islam,” more money for democracy-building nongovernmental organizations in the Muslim world, and new public-diplomacy programs to counter America's increasingly terrible image in the world. The Nunn-Lugar expansions advocated in earlier progressive reports are part of the agenda, as are new funds for port and border security.

These developments could lay the groundwork for better days ahead, but there's one more big problem: Such efforts could come to little unless the party's politicians truly get on board. The new Senate program could be the harbinger of a change, or it could, like last year's House proposal, be a mere false dawn. With a very few exceptions, congressional Democrats are not foreign-policy people, and foreign policy isn't what they spend most of their time talking about. “We're a domestic-policy institution,” one Democratic Senate aide explained to me. “Maybe if 20,000 troops die [in Iraq], we'll do something,” just as Congress eventually acted during the Vietnam War. During the 1990s, by contrast, congressional Republicans were active in the foreign-policy arena. They laid the groundwork for much of what became the Bush foreign policy by pushing the Iraq Liberation Act, forcefully arguing for more spending on missile-defense programs, criticizing and blocking the full implementation of the Agreed Framework with North Korea, and seeking to undermine the United Nations' legitimacy.

Congressional Democrats are far more timid. Democrats mounted a vigorous opposition to John Ashcroft's appointment as attorney general in 2001, driven by the opposition of feminist and civil-rights groups. But when Alberto Gonzales, whose role in creating a permissive environment for torture and abuse of detainees involved much more serious wrongdoing than anything Ashcroft stood accused of, was put forward as his replacement, Democrats offered “tough questions” and not much else.

Unfortunately, the strategy of evasion has some real merits from the perspective of the party's congressional leadership. The payoff for consistent engagement with national-security issues is purely long term, and most visible at the presidential level. In the short term, such engagement would distract attention from the Democrats' stronger issues and force them to play on an issue where they start at a disadvantage. But joining the battle is essential. Future presidential elections will almost certainly feature a prominent national-security debate, and sound policy ideas accomplish nothing unless they can be credibly and effectively communicated.

In 2004, Democrats tried, in essence, to substitute Kerry's personal history as a combat veteran for building a solid brand identity. Under the circumstances, it made some sense as a strategy, but it didn't work. And there are only so many decorated veterans available to nominate. If the party again tries to throw something together on the fly, it will most likely fail, once more leaving liberals scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong. The problem, however, is bigger than any one candidate or campaign, and there's no time like the present to start addressing it.

The president's inaugural address has served to highlight the steep gap between rhetoric and reality on Bush's “forward strategy of freedom,” and it gives the Democrats an ideal opening to push for their ideas on this score, as does Bush's continued insistence on “staying the course” in Iraq without providing the military with the resources it needs to win. Getting off the path of least resistance and squarely addressing these issues is the party's best hope for the long term, and might do the country some good in the meantime.

Matthew Yglesias is a staff writer.

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