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Jewish World Review Dec. 21, 2001 / 6 Teves, 5762

Michael Barone

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Looking back-and forward

How the Democrats have changed in the past 12 months --
IT is a year and a week since George W. Bush emerged as the winner of the 2000 presidential election. Many things have changed since that time, including our two major political parties. These two great Republican and Democratic institutions, the oldest and (by my count–you could argue this) the third oldest political parties in the world, are always worth monitoring.

First, the Democrats. The striking thing about the Democratic Party is the disappearance or near disappearance of two types of Democrats who have dominated the party at different times over the past 20 years–the Blame America First Democrats and the "new Democrats."

The Blame America First Democrats were named by Jeane Kirkpatrick in her memorable speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention. "They always blame America first," she said repeatedly, documenting how Democratic politicians had criticized American policies rather than America's adversaries and critics abroad. She has said since that she had noticed this when she attended the Democratic National Conventions in 1972 and 1976.

The evolution of the Blame America First Democrats has been explained elegantly by scholar Robert Kagan in his review in the New Republic of David Halberstam's War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals. The foreign-policy appointees who advised John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to escalate the Vietnam War, even though they thought it was not an important enough struggle to remove the draft exemptions for their own sons, turned on their own work in 1967 and 1968, as it became clear that these supposed "best and brightest" had produced a war strategy that could not produce victory.

Then, when Richard Nixon came into office, Democratic politicians, almost all of whom had supported Kennedy's and Johnson's escalation of the war, opposed Richard Nixon's de-escalation of the war as too warlike. Similarly, Halberstam, whose 1964 book The Making of a Quagmire argued for more aggressive U.S. support of South Vietnam, then portrayed the war in the 1970 The Best and the Brightest as one that America couldn't–and probably shouldn't–win. Liberals, having led the country into a war they didn't know how to win, opposed as immoral the Nixon strategy that got the country out of the war it didn't deserve to win. The liberal elite ended up in an adversarial posture to the country, but it nevertheless felt entitled to lead. Democratic politicians increasingly saw and depicted the United States as the bad guys–as a superpower that needed to be roped down by arms control treaties, that needed to acknowledge economic obligations to a morally superior Third World, that was likely to make war because of an excitable, aggressive, and ignorant population. Isolationists had regarded America as too good for the world. Blame America First Democrats believed the world was too good for America.

Blame America First Democrats were heard in large number as recently as the debate on the Gulf War resolution in January 1991. Majorities of Senate and House Democrats voted against the resolution–almost enough to defeat it in the Senate. Democrat after Democrat came to the microphone to decry American involvement in the Gulf War as doomed to failure and immoral. Their words made little sense three months later, after American and allied forces triumphed. They made much more sense as retrospective comments on the Vietnam War: These Democrats were taking the stand they wished they or their elders had taken some 25 or 30 years before. They were voting on the Gulf War resolution in January 1991 as they wished members had voted on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August 1964.

Of course their votes looked foolish after March 1991–none of the three finalists for the 1992 Democratic nomination voted against the Gulf War resolution in 1991. Bill Clinton's position, announced immediately after the Senate voted, was classic Clinton: "I guess I would have voted with the majority if it was a close vote. But I agree with the arguments the minority made." Yet one of the good effects of Clinton's eight years in office was the disappearance of the Blame America First Democrats. One reason for this was Clinton's frequent and sometimes quite impressive resort to patriotic rhetoric. As time went on, as Clinton followed policies in line with Democrats' ideas–negotiation rather than confrontation with terrorists like the Irish Republican Army and the Palestinian Authority, endorsements (if only verbal) of treaties on everything from nuclear tests to air pollution, interventions in favor of human rights rather than out of concern with the national interest–Democrats started thinking of the United States as "us," rather than "them."

This was most apparent when Clinton ordered the bombing of Iraq on Dec. 19, 1998, when the House was considering impeachment. Democrats angrily decried the refusal of Republicans to delay the impeachment debate while "our men and women in the military" were risking their lives. For some Democrats, this was surely just a cynical cheap shot, as, probably, was Clinton's order to bomb. But many Democrats were plainly quite sincere. They really felt that they shouldn't be debating the ouster of a president while "we" were fighting. A lot of attitudes had changed between January 1991 and December 1998.

All doubt about this vanished on Sept. 11, 2001. Democrats and Republicans alike instantly understood that "we" were attacked. Their reactions were identical. The red and the blue states that seemed separated by a cultural divide suddenly became red, white, and blue America. Only a tiny minority, most of it on left-wing campuses, and including just one or perhaps two members of Congress, rushed to blame America first.

The disappearance of the Blame America First Democrats strengthens the Democratic Party. For it is an unnatural thing for a great political party to reflexively take an adversary position toward the nation it seeks to lead. Voters are unlikely to trust such a party with control of government. An example was the Whig Party of Charles James Fox, who took the side of revolutionary France against royal Britain. Fox's party was trusted with the reins of government for only one year between 1783 and 1830. From 1968 to 1991, when most Democratic national leaders tended to blame America first, American voters trusted them with the presidency just once, while Republicans won it five times. The one Democrat elected president was a Naval Academy graduate who during his first campaign distanced himself from the Blame America First branch of his party; when he seemed to adopt Blame America First policies, he was defeated for reelection. Now future Democratic candidates are not likely to suffer from this handicap. This is good for the country and good for the Democratic Party.

The disappearance–near disappearance would be more accurate–of the "new Democrats" will probably turn out to be bad news for both. Of course there are some moderate Democrats left in the House and Senate, and many more out in the states, and there is still a coherent bloc on some issues. But on two very major issues, the new-Democrat positions rhetorically proclaimed and on some occasions backed by President Bill Clinton, the new Democrats have for all intents and purposes disappeared.

The two issues are Social Security and trade. In December 1998 Bill Clinton appeared at a meeting of a presidential commission on Social Security and gave a speech that, if it did not call for individual investment accounts as part of Social Security, was intellectually consistent with such a proposal.

Leading Democrats in Congress openly supported individual investment accounts, including Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, and Bob Kerrey, also on Finance. A very large majority of Republicans were ready to support them. Clinton could not run again: This was the time, many Washington pundits said, when he'd seek to make history. But Clinton, prompted by his designated successor, Al Gore, and by the liberals who had defended him on impeachment, decided to make a campaign issue instead. In Feb ruary 1999 he came out for voluntary accounts to be invested by the government–a proposal rejected by Republicans and, more important, by Moynihan, because it risked political control of the private economy.

Now it's hard to find any new Democrats supporting individual investment accounts as part of Social Security. Gore vociferously opposed them in his campaign, with rhetoric that might have come out of the 1930s; indeed, in the peroration of his speech accepting the Democratic nomination, he remembered his father's advice to never forget the 1930s. Joseph Lieberman, who had mentioned individual investment accounts favorably before Gore tapped him for the vice presidential nomination, decided afterward that he agreed with Gore that the transition costs were just too great. Clinton, Moynihan, and Kerrey left office in January 2001. Texas Democratic Rep. Charles Stenholm still supports individual investment accounts, but he carries few Democratic votes with him. Louisiana Sen. John Breaux seems still favorable, but he has made it clear that he will concentrate on Medicare reform and try to push through something like the bipartisan premium support proposal that was squelched by Clinton in March 1999. It's not clear that preventing changes in Social Security is a politically profitable position anymore, and there's considerable evidence to the contrary. But it is the position almost all Democratic politicians want to take. Bill Clinton's rhetoric and Pat Moynihan's and Bob Kerrey's bill have vanished into air.

Heading to the vanishing point also is the new-Democratic support of free trade. The Clinton administration worked hard and successfully to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiated by the first Bush administration; it sought to have Congress vote the president trade promotion authority (as it is now called; it used to be "fast track") after it lapsed in 1994; it supported permanent normal trade relations (as it is now called; it used to be "most favored nation status") with China. At least at some points, it lobbied vigorously for all three.

But support for these free-trade measures among House Democrats has almost entirely disappeared. In November 1993, 102 House Democrats voted for NAFTA. In November 1997, the House leadership took fast track off the floor when Democrats couldn't deliver a similar number of votes. In September 1998, only 29 House Democrats voted for fast track. In May 2000, 73 House Democrats voted for PNTR for China. In December 2001, only 21 House Democrats voted for trade promotion authority.

Why the drop in support for freer trade? One reason is the strong opposition of the AFL-CIO, which has become a more important force in Democratic electoral pol itics in the past decade. Another reason is the steadfast and evidently sincere opposition to all these measures by House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, who has generally done a fine job of holding his caucus together. A third reason cited by many Democrats on the 1998 and 2001 votes on fast track/trade promotion authority is the Republican leadership: Republicans, they charge, have not made enough concessions to Democratic concerns. But, in fact, the 2001 trade promotion authority measure had more provisions binding trade negotiators on labor and environmental standards than previous measures many of these same Democrats voted for or were committed to. The Democrats say also that Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas was obnoxious and difficult to deal with. But this is a childish complaint; a committee chairman's obnoxiousness is a hurdle serious members can overcome when they want to.

It is fascinating that 30 of the 32 House Democrats from export-dependent California voted no in December 2001, as did five of the six House Democrats from even more export-dependent Washington State: proof that Marx was wrong when he said that economic interest determines ideology. Their ranks include Sacramento's Robert Matsui, who says he has supported every previous freer-trade measure but was working hard against this one. Matsui is the third-ranking Democrat on Ways and Means, behind two members who are a decade older; it may have occurred to him that supporting freer trade would make it difficult to win election as ranking member or chairman in a caucus now overwhelmingly opposed to freer trade. A higher proportion of Senate Democrats will likely support trade promotion authority, and it passed the House, with the help of a well-timed gavel, by a 215-to-214 vote. But with little help from the vanishing breed of new Democrats.

Whether the near disappearance of the new Democrats is a bad thing for the country or the Democratic Party depends on what you think of new-Democratic policies. But as a general rule, leftish stands on economic issues have not been a winner for Democratic candidates nationally; the last time such a Democrat was elected president was in 1964. Al Gore's populist "people versus the powerful" politics in 2000 did not enable him to carry even low-income, long-Democratic West Virginia. The House Democrats may be pleasing the AFL-CIO. But it's not clear they have embraced a stand that will enable them to win majorities in 2002 or 2004.

What about the Republicans? How have they changed in the past 12 months? That's a subject for another commentary.

Michael Baone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2001, Michael Barone