Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 10, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

IT'S THE WAR ON TERROR, STUPID....Noam Scheiber isn't buying Stan Greenberg's argument that John Kerry could have won if his economic message had been a little more compelling:

The flaw here is in believing you always get to determine what an election is going to be fundamentally about. Granted, the Bushies did a good job shifting the discussion toward security and values whenever possible. But I'm not sure they could have done it so successfully had the political landscape not been tilted that way anyway. In the same way, I doubt it would have helped Republicans to talk about security and values had the country just been through an economic stretch like the one we had between 1929 and 1932. In that case, polls might have shown voters vastly preferring Republicans on national security and values. Polls might even have shown voters to be deeply concerned about these issues. But when it came time to decide who to vote for, I doubt these issues would have had much of an effect.

This is a point that really ought to be front and center. The economy was fundamentally a wash: good enough to keep Bush from losing but bad enough to keep Kerry in the running. Kerry could have won if the economy had actually been worse, but I doubt he could have won just by talking differently about the economy that we actually had.

Ditto for the "moral values" voters: at best, Kerry might have picked up an extra point or two from these folks with a change in rhetoric, but that's about it. (Is it worth trying to pick up those points? Sure. But it's still just a couple of points.)

In other words, those are nits. If Democrats are going to engage in navel gazing, our gaze really ought to be directed toward the one topic we continue to avoid like the plague: becoming more credible on national security. That's where Kerry and the Dems lost the election. Like it or not and I can almost hear the outrage brewing already in the comment section over the mere fact that I'm mentioning this fighting terrorism is the major swing issue of the day, and perceived Democratic weakness toward terrorism is likely to remain our biggest electoral albatross for quite a while.

It's remarkable, really, that in the last week an awful lot of commenters have seemed blithely willing to recommend that Democrats appease the Christian right on things like abortion choice and gay rights, which are core issues for liberalism. At the same time, though, they're silent on the possibility of changing our tune on terrorism, which isn't. John Kerry made significant inroads when he spoke plainly about hunting down terrorists and killing them, as he did in the first debate, but he was never really willing to much further than that.

Why? Why didn't he make a bigger deal out of his plan to increase the size of the Army by 40,000 troops? Why didn't he make a bigger deal out of his desire to get tougher with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan? Why didn't he make a bigger deal about George Bush's unwillingness to confront the Arab world over their continued funding of radical madrassas?

Beats me. Those were all part of Kerry's official national security package, but you didn't hear much about them either on the campaign trail or in the debates. But none of them require any compromise with liberal principles and all of them would have been pretty popular.

This is what we should be talking about. For a start, try reading "War Torn: Why Democrats Can't Think Straight About National Security," by Heather Hurlburt. It's a couple of years old, but it still rings true.

Kevin Drum 2:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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