Today, Perlstein and I discuss whether Democrats have co-opted a traditionally GOP plank. Previously, we weighed causes of the Democratic Party’s apparent national strength and assessed the compatibility of progressive politics and traditional religious values. Tomorrow and Friday, we’ll discuss the party’s core values and if Democrats can expect a long-term political ascendancy.
This is a tricky one. As a general rule of thumb, Democrats do
better in national elections when the year’s defining issue is economic
fairness, and Republicans do better when the defining issue is national
security. But there are plentiful signs that this trusty, traditional
logic is getting scrambled in this remarkable period of ideological
In the 2006 congressional races, of course, Democrats, with their
message that we need to get out of Iraq sooner rather than later,
dominated. Voters took in the same old tired Republican message that
unless we smashed everything in sight and kept on turning our nation
into a garrison state, the terrorists would smother us in our beds —
and yawned and pulled the lever for Democrats. More recently, in the
14th Congressional District of Illinois, west of where I live in Chicago, Democrat Bill Foster scored a shocking upset against Republican Jim Oberweis, a local dairy
magnate with very high name recognition and very traditionally hawkish
Republican positions on foreign policy. The Oberweis message was the
same old, same old: Terrorists would smother us in our beds unless we
smashed everything in sight and kept on turning our nation into a
garrison state. Foster’s message was standard issue for Democrats: We
can fight terrorism smarter and more effectively by ending the
distracting war in Iraq.
He also did something gutsy that no Democratic consultant trapped in
the tired old triangulations of the past would recommend: He
aggressively opposed the president’s call for "retroactive immunity"
for telecommunications companies that may have broken the law in
cooperating with National Security Agency spying. His opponent said this would all but surrender us to the
terrorists. But the Democrat won handily. This was all the more
significant because the 14th District was previously represented by
then-Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. It’s a suburban
and rural district. It also includes Ronald Reagan’s hometown of Dixon. How Republican is it, traditionally? Well, I
remember when I reported there during the 2004 presidential election
the few civil servants I met who were voting for Sen. John Kerry and begged me not to reveal that fact. They were afraid that if it got around, they’d lose their jobs.
The old Republican story about national security didn’t work. This time, the voters of the 14th District chose a Democrat.
There is even fascinating new poll evidence that the very foundation of
the old opposition between national security voters and economic
fairness voters is breaking down — in a way that gives the advantage
to the Democrats. People are blaming the bad economy on the Iraq war
and Republican security policies generally. They’re intuiting that
Republicanism is making us both less secure and less prosperous. If
Democrats are able to run with a message that firms up this equation in
voters’ minds, this whole thing could blow wide open.
Rick Perlstein is the author of the forthcoming "Nixonland: The Rise
of a President and the Fracturing of America" and a senior fellow at
Campaign for America’s Future.
Keep reading for my counterpoint…
I was taught that before you get into someone else’s business, you
should make sure your own backyard is clean. The U.S. didn’t do that,
and now we’re paying the price.
The Republican Party, thanks to President Bush, is in no position to
campaign as the party of national security (try insecurity). But let’s
face facts: Neither party is in a position to guarantee Americans
absolute safety from future terrorist attacks. Bush’s foreign policies
have almost assured that future attempts to attack this country will be
And although it’s true that Americans are blaming the bad economy on
the Iraq war and Republican security policies, Democrats are going to
have to step to the plate and present solutions to voters, not just
rhetoric. Now what those solutions are, I don’t know. If I did, I’d be
running for president. But I do know that a renewed focus on America’s
domestic issues is a step in the right direction.
I cringe every time the media report on the amount of money we’re
dumping into this now endless war. Typically, such reports are followed
by stories on how high gas prices rose overnight or the number of
Americans unemployed or uninsured.
The American voter is not stupid. We know that we’re not going to get
out of Iraq overnight and that there will probably be future terrorist
attack attempts on our soil. What we want in our next administration is
a renewed sense of commitment to cleaning up our backyard instead of
others’. We want someone who is capable of answering the 3 a.m. phone
call but won’t write a check their as can’t cash.
For me, Army Sgt. Anita Shaw, who returned home early from her tour in
Iraq because her son was senselessly gunned down in the streets of Los
Angeles last week, said it best: "We need to be cleaning up the streets
of the United States instead of cleaning up Iraq."
The American voter wants its government to get out of the business of
starting wars, and instead tend to its own business — the business of
the people. Fortunately for Democrats, the Republicans have already
shown us they’re unwilling to get our troops out of Iraq, and I think
everyone feels that it’s time for a change.
Yours in the struggle,