'Security' Redefined

As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton once made quite a splash by offering a formula to revive the Democratic Party. In May 1991 in Cleveland, Clinton told the Democratic Leadership Council, "Too many of the people that used to vote for us—the very burdened middle class we are talking about—have not trusted us in national elections to defend our national interests abroad, to put their values into our social policy at home, or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline."

What were Clinton's greatest policy victories as president? Free trade, welfare reform, and a balanced budget—not causes that bring Democrats to their feet.

Moreover, the Democratic Party did not thrive under Clinton. The party lost control of Congress in 1994, and the 1990s saw the end of more than 20 years of Democratic control of the nation's statehouses. Most governors are now Republicans. Democrats today control only 17 state legislatures, the smallest share in more than 50 years.

Arguably, Democrats are back where they started in 1991. "I read The New Republic with the cover, 'Democratic Coma,' " Clinton told his audience in 1991. Time magazine's cover dated May 19, 2003, declares "They Don't Make Democrats Like They Used To."

One could argue that moderation did not cause the Democrats' problems. Clinton thrived in 1992 and 1996 while embracing moderate ideas. Democrats got in trouble when Clinton lurched to the left in 1994, after his tax hike and health care plan; in 2000, after Clinton's morality became an issue; and in 2002, when the Democratic Party tried to ignore national security.

Winning issues seem to be within the Democrats' reach. Ask the public which is more important for the country right now, tax cuts or health insurance for all—as The New York Times/CBS News poll recently did—and the answer, by a wide margin, is health insurance (81 percent to 14 percent). And that's exactly the issue that Dick Gephardt, Howard Dean, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry are all running on.

But two-thirds of those polled—and nearly two-thirds of Democrats—could not name a single Democrat running for president. Most Americans (53 percent) think that the Republicans have a clear plan for the country, but only 40 percent think that the Democrats do.

We're back to the same old debate: liberals ("I'm Howard Dean, and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party") versus moderates ("My name is Bob Graham. I come from the electable wing of the Democratic Party").

President Clinton defined Democrats as the party that offered security. Remember his 1996 campaign mantra—Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment? Security attracted a lot of female voters. Men prefer a party that takes risks on such things as tax cuts and wars.

The problem for Democrats is, security means something very different now from what it did in 1996. Democrats are just catching up with that change.

Last week's bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca gave them an opening. Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., went to the Senate floor to warn, "Those forces who would have us live in fear have not been destroyed." The latest terrorist attacks make their point, Democrats say: The war in Iraq was a dangerous diversion from the war on terrorism.

"And polls indicate a majority of the American people believe the Saddam Hussein regime was involved in the September 11 attacks," Feingold said. "But I have never ... not in hearings, not in classified briefings, I have never heard once our officials assert we have intelligence indicating this is the case."

One Democrat is carrying that message into the 2004 campaign. "I am running for president to bring back a focus on America's security," Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said when he announced on May 6.

Last fall, Graham opposed the resolution authorizing the president to use force in Iraq, on the grounds that it was too weak. He said during the Senate floor debate in October, "I urge my colleagues to open their eyes to the much larger array of lethal, more-violent foes who are prepared today to assault us here at home." As a former chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, Graham can claim credibility on the issue.

In an impressive feat of political jujitsu, Graham is using the security issue to attack President Bush from the left, where he can make himself sound like George McGovern ("Friends, it is time to bring America back!") and from the right, where he can make himself sound like Ronald Reagan. Graham startled his fellow senators when he warned them during the war debate: "If you believe that the American people are not going to be at additional threat, then, frankly, my friends ... blood is going to be on your hands."

The recent bombings and the terrible prospect of more attacks give Graham a potentially powerful theme to rally Democrats: I told you so. He said last week, "The war in Iraq was a distraction. It took us off the war on terror, which we were on a path to win, but now we've let it slip away from us."

Challenging Bush on his strongest issue could be daring or foolhardy—or both. The two often go together. But it's what Democrats might have to do.