The War Will Hurt the Democrats

Mark on the Right

WHEN THE DEMOCRATIC caucus in Congress met just before Christmas to discuss the party line on the Gulf Crisis, 29 speakers argued against a congressional resolution authorizing force against Iraq. Only one, Rep. Stephen Solarz (N.Y.), defended the president's position.

Solarz spent the next few weeks scrounging up what limited support for the Bush resolution he could find among his colleagues. But in the end, only 86 Democrats in the House and 10 in the Senate voted for it.

Rebuffed by party leaders who insisted on a policy of indefinite sanctions, the longtime dove and '60s peacenik from Brooklyn wrote in the New Republic, "If Democrats are not prepared to support the use of force in a situation like this, when the aggression is so unambiguous, the international community so cohesive and the stakes so great, how can anyone ever expect the Democratic Party to support the use of force in defense of vital American interests in the far more common circumstances of confusion, ambiguity and uncertainty?"

The Solarz story underscores the Democratic Party's fatal vulnerability on national security issues. In opposing the force resolution in Congress last month, the Democrats took a tremendous political risk. Should the Gulf War prove successful, they will once again be susceptible to familiar charges of naivete and weakness that have haunted them since Vietnam. In presidential elections to come, the Democrats' widely perceived softness on defense will seem even softer.

THE DEMOCRATIC STRATEGY may have seemed politically safe back in January. Opinion polls reflected deep public divisions over the war, and peace protests were growing steadily. Moreover, most Democrats kept their options open by insisting they would support an eventual war, but not an immediate one. Force was justified, but not wise, others declared.


But what may have seemed then like the most cautious approach was a serious miscalculation. The public will probably interpret the Democrats' calls for patience and prudence as signs of weakness and indecision. Whatever its merits, the sanctions policy would only have postponed the tough decisions that the president, and most Americans, knew had to be made then. When the United Nations deadline expired, Bush wanted to act, and the Democrats simply stalled.

The political repercussions of the war will, of course, ultimately depend on its outcome. Informed by the Vietnam paradigm, conventional wisdom holds that a bloody war that inflicts thousands of American casualties will ruin Bush come 1992. The Bush presidency does indeed stand at a "defining hour." A short and swift victory ensures Bush's reelection; a protracted and painful struggle may send him packing.

There's some truth in that. But pundits should examine the Vietnam experience more closely. Contrary to popular belief, serious domestic opposition to that war mounted long after the fighting started (three years after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution), when our goals seemed futile and unattainable. In stark contrast to the cryptic escalation of hostilities in Vietnam, the Gulf War was preceeded by months of public debate and legitimized with formal approval from Congress. And this time the U.S. has enough firepower to achieve its goals.

Many expect popular support for the war to erode once ground fighting commences. No doubt, some will. But the same public opinion polls that now show war approval rates as high as 90 percent also reveal that a growing majority expects a long and hard struggle. Far from being just temporarily titilated by the precision of smart bombs and Patriot missiles, Americans appear willing to stomach the messiness inflicted by tanks and rifles.

ALL OF THIS creates an uncomfortable dilemma for the Democrats. Like all Americans, they hope for a short, successful war--exactly the kind of war that will send Bush's approval ratings into the stratosphere and keep their own party out of the White House. Thus, what is undeniably beneficial for the country is politically destructive for the Democrats. Sen. Ted Kennedy's cool reception at Fort Devens last month demonstrates this precarious situation.

Nearly every Democratic presidential hopeful in Congress voted against the force resolution. Opponents of the war included the predictable peace bloc, the entire Democratic leadership and even moderates like Sam Nunn and Lloyd Bentsen, not to mention other vaunted figures like Bill Bradley and David Boren. And New York Governor Mario Cuomo, whose inexperience in foreign affairs already hurts him, cravenly suggested that Saddam could be bought off with a couple of islands and some oil.

OPPOSITION to a popular war alone won't devastate their presidential prospects. But coupled with the Democrats' crippling reputation as the "peace party," it probably will. The leftward lurch of the party since Vietnam has eroded public confidence in its ability to lead. The same party that once championed national strength and self-assertion under Wilson and Kennedy now embraces, to varying degrees, the non-interventionism and pacificism of George McGovern and Walter Mondale.

As Morton Kondracke recently pointed out, 1988 ABC News exit polls showed Bush ahead 88 percent to 12 percent among voters who regarded foreign policy and defense as their most important criteria (compared to a mere 5 percent margin on economic issues). Bush's thus-far stellar performance in the Gulf Crisis will only perpetuate this imbalance.

Even if voters did not support every item on Ronald Reagan's foreign policy agenda--such as his unpopular alliance with the Nicaraguan contras--they were reassured by his stalwart defense of America's national security. Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the recent misbehavior of the Soviet Union have reminded voters of the need for strong leadership and firm convictions. The amusing image of Michael Dukakis test-driving an army tank during his 1988 campaign is a powerful illustration of the Democrats' failure to offer either.

EXPECT Republican candidates to pound their opponents for voting against popular weapons systems like the Patriot and the F-117A Stealth Fighter. To be sure, both parties deserve credit for the current military success in the Gulf. Development of the Tomahawk cruise missile and the Stealth fighter program, for example, took place during the Carter Administration.

But in this debate, as in others like it, the Republicans enjoy the ultimate advantage. They will intensify demands for continued funding of the Strategic Defense Initiative, which uses Patriot-like technology. And they will no doubt remind voters that many Democrats opposed deployment of sea-launched cruise missiles for arms control purposes. Candidates might pose blunt questions like, "How many more pilots would have died had the Democrats been able to kill the Tomahawk?"

The Gulf Crisis will impact much more than just partisan politics. A successful war could tip the balance of power between Congress and the Executive Branch toward the latter. It might also alleviate concerns about America's "decline" that recently put Paul Kennedy on the bestseller list.

But all this speculation about the domestic winners and losers of the war is merely tenative--and perhaps some-what unseemly--while the bullets still fly. In wartime, after all, we're all on the same side.

Election time, however, is a different story.

Mark J. Sneider '92 is publicity director of the Harvard Republican Club.

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