Osama bin Laden and the Death of Democratic Weakness

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For over half a century, Democrats have been perceived as weak on national security and foreign policy, leading them to disastrous policies. Will the killing of bin Laden put that to rest once and for all?

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David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

In May 2004, a senior Bush Administration official was asked by the Wall Street Journal about the challenges facing John Kerry as he sought to address national security issues, and in particular the war in Iraq, in his campaign for the White House. "It's never stopped being 1968" for Democrats, the official said.

There was no need to spell out what "1968" meant. It was shorthand for the caricature of Democratic "weakness" and anti-military attitudes, dating from the party's opposition to the war in Vietnam, that has become the prism by which the Democrats are viewed on national security issues -- and by which the party often views itself. The challenge for Kerry wasn't Iraq; it was in battling this negative perception of Democrats as weak and indecisive on national security and foreign policy. As time would tell, it became one of the proximate causes of his defeat that November.

For more than four decades the perception of Democratic "weakness" on foreign policy and national security has been one of the most dominant and distorting political stereotypes in modern American politics -- affecting not only how voters perceive Democrats, but also how the party approaches these issues. It has become a knee jerk political mindset that shapes the attitudes, policy preferences and even career choices of progressive foreign policy and national security analysts. Perceived political vulnerability about the party's ability to keep America safe and strong has led Democrats, time and time again, to engineer their national security policies around looking tough rather than necessarily doing what they believe is best for the country. The politics of vulnerability don't just influence policy -- often, they trump it altogether.

But on Sunday, May 1, that meme may have finally died.

With the killing of bin Laden, Democrats have, for the first time in more than four decades, the chance to retire the notion that they are not tough enough to protect America from external danger. Beyond that immediate political function, it provides Democrats with the opportunity to chart a new course for American foreign policy. The question now is whether they will take advantage of this previously unbeknown political space.

Once the 2006 and 2008 elections were over, Democrats returned to the politics of overcompensation

The challenge for Democrats is that the weakness stereotype has been around longer than most progressives have been alive, dating back six decades to the "Who Lost China" debate of the 1950s, after Nationalist China fell to the Communists in 1949 and the Truman Administration was held responsible. Both consciously and subconsciously, that debate has shaped Democratic national security policy ever since.

With China's move into the "red" orbit, Democrats found themselves on the defensive -- a process that only gathered momentum with the subsequent McCarthy witchhunts, which intimated that the government was infiltrated by fellow travelers. To avoid the stigma of insufficient rigor on combating the Soviet threat, Democrats adopted as hardline an anti-Communist stance as Republicans. Their build-up and escalation in Vietnam in the early to mid-60s -- and reluctance to change course even after the war began going badly -- was driven, in part, by fear that a political victory for communism in Southeast Asia would re-engage the "who lost" debate at home and expose Democrats to potentially severe political harm.

After the 1968 election, Democrats began articulating a new approach to foreign policy that rejected the bipartisan anti-Communist consensus and focused instead on non-military elements of foreign policy -- but they paid a huge political price for doing so. Democrat George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, which called for an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, amnesty for draft resisters, and a huge cut in defense spending, led to accusations that he was "an apostle of appeasement." And it brought a new description for Democrats on foreign policy "McGovernite" -- a euphemism for fecklessness and lack of patriotic rigor that hung around the party's neck like an albatross.

In 1984, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick strode on stage at the Republican National Convention and lambasted Democrats as a party of "retreat and decline" that always "blamed America first." The former charge resonated with voters, particularly since the last Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, had presided over the disastrous Iranian hostage crisis. Four years later, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis tried to deflect this issue by riding around in a tank -- a stunt that further entrenched the notion Democrats simply weren't serious on defense issues.

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Michael Cohen is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project. He is currently writing a book on the 1968 presidential election. 

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