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The Challenges Facing the Democratic Party


Before the recent U.S. elections, many polls showed Americans in favor of political change. There was widespread disapproval, for example, of President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. And yet after the elections, many American voters cited national security as a main reason they preferred the Republican candidate. Will Marshall says, "You can never compete with the president in shaping U.S. policy abroad."

Will Marshall, president and co-founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, believes the governing party has a natural advantage on foreign policy and security. But he also says the Democrats bear much of the blame for a lack of credibility on these issues. They seem to have lost interest in national security since the end of the cold war.

"They tended to cede that issue to the Republicans for at least two decades, maybe longer," adds Mr. Marshall. "Republicans have generally been seen as the party of national strength and resolve when it comes to facing foreign threats."

Peter Beinart, editor of "The New Republic" magazine, says that was not always the case. In a much-debated article he calls on Democrats to return to the bold, muscular foreign policy they adopted at the dawn of the cold war. In 1947, after the attempted communist takeover of Greece, Democratic president Harry Truman announced the doctrine of containment of Soviet expansion. In 1960 another Democratic candidate, John F. Kennedy, ran a successful presidential campaign on a tough security policy.

In Mr. Beinart's view the Democrats had a chance to win on that issue again because of what he sees as the Bush administration's failures in the war on terrorism and the conflict in Iraq. But, he says, Mr. Kerry did not distance himself sufficiently from the anti-war left that opposes any use of American force abroad. Peter Beinart believes such pacifism has little traction with the American voters after the 9-11 attacks.

"There cannot be a knee-jerk liberal opposition to the use of American military power," says Mr. Beinart. "American military power can be an inevitable and necessary part of the war on terror maybe not the single biggest part, but a part nonetheless."

Peter Beinart says Democrats should model their security policy on the Truman and Kennedy approach: a combination of military resolve, economic assistance and public diplomacy.

Cliff Kupchan, vice-president of the Nixon Center, points out that in 2004 the Democrats did quite well in gubernatorial and state legislature elections. Their candidates won in some states that voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush. Mr. Kupchan believes the next presidential candidate should come from the ranks of those so-called heartland Democrats.

Mr. Kupchan says, "my view and my hope is that we are going to get out and reach out to the young Democratic governors who are out there and who, I think, get it who get the need to articulate a Democratic vision on national security. I definitely think that in the next election we will have a very different set of ideas."

John Halpin, director of research at the Center for American Progress, says the Democrats have lots of ideas on how to fight terrorism and protect America. But making security a principle of the party will require still more intellectual and political effort.

"The party needs to elevate these ideas to the core of its think tanks," says Mr. Halpin. "We need a lot of academic support on this. We need young people deciding to study and enter the military, to understand weapons programs and do dramatic work in the Middle East. It's a pretty broad need in the larger progressive infrastructure."

In other words, a lot needs to be done before the Democrats can call themselves the party of strength and security. But that will be needed to compete effectively in the mid-term elections of 2006 and the presidential contest of 2008. As long as the terrorist threat continues, say political analysts, Americans will want to be sure their leader has both the resolve and the means to protect them and their families.

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