As late as the election of 1960, there was no noticeable partisan element to the debate over the size of the defense budget and the degree of assertiveness the country should pursue in foreign affairs. John F. Kennedy attacked Richard Nixon over the (nonexistent) “missile gap” and the (utterly trivial) issue of Quemoy and Matsu.
That all turned around in the late 1960s. Since the War in Vietnam, the hawk-dove dimension in American politics has mapped fairly well onto the right-left dimension. That polarization has been bad for the country, and a disaster for the Democratic Party. But it was the almost inevitable consequence of the rising concern with human rights issues on the left, and the fact that Cold War strategy often meant that U.S. military and diplomatic forces were aligned with fairly horrible right-wing elements abroad: with the “dirty warriors” of Argentina, for example, and the white minority regime in South Africa.
The fall of the Wall and the rise of jihadist terror as the major threat to U.S. interests and values created a new context for the dispute over how great our forces should be and how aggressively they should be deployed. Suddenly there wasn’t any particular reason why a strong defense should be thought of as serving the values of the right. Even the ongoing contests with Russia and China had next to no ideological dimension.
But the politics of national security remained stuck in its Cold War rut. The Democrats and the left, associated with a willingness to impose taxes and spend the revenues on public purposes, continued to think of defense spending primarily as a competitor for funds with their domestic agenda. The Republicans and the right (except for the libertarians) exempted any military spending, no matter how frivolous, from the concern about the excessive size of government. The Pentagon brass, including Colin Powell, openly connived with the Republicans to defeat Bill Clinton over the gays-in-the-military issue, and the military contractors poured their campaign contributions into Republican coffers, secure in their belief that Republican electoral victories were bullish for for the defense sector.
Since 9-11, elements of the old antiwar left have been treating the current conflict as if it were merely Vietnam revisited. The worst extremes of the Vietnam era weren’t — no one is carrying Taliban or Iraqi flags and chanting about how the national enemy is “gonna win” — but the combination of “War is Not the Answer” quasi-pacifism (personally, it seems to me that whether war is the answer depends on the question) and the sense that American power is, on the whole, a bad thing for the world and needs to be cut back and tamed remained to fuel the A.N.S.W.E.R. rallies and the Dean meet-ups.
That’s why I supported Wesley Clark for President. I thought he offered the best hope for recapturing the Democratic Party for an unapologetic patriotism, and the symbols of patriotism — especially the flag — for the Democratic Party. I thought, and think, that to beat George W. Bush, a Democratic candidate has to challenge him on security issues from the right, exploiting the political vulnerability Bush has created for himself by his excessive deference to the needs of the Saudi royal family. I’ve been waiting to see whether Kerry or Edwards would be willing, once Dean was out of the way, to commit to the course of action I think right for the country and right for the campaign.
Yesterday I got my answer. Kerry gets it. The speech is just about pitch-perfect. It doesn’t hit the Saudi connection, and it doesn’t make the point that irresponsible tax cuts are that much more irresponsible in wartime, and it doesn’t deal with the unnecessary domestic dissension the administration has, unpatriotically, created. But it says, clearly, that the struggle against the jihadists is everyone’s struggle, that the current Administration has been pursuing it fecklessly, and that a Kerry administration would pursue it more competently.
As of this morning, before I read the speech, I intended to vote for Wesley Clark in the California primary on Tuesday, to express my conviction that the eventual candidate should pursue a muscular security policy. Now that’s not necessary. I can express the same sentiment by voting for John Kerry, and I intend to do so.