A few months ago, I predicted that after the war we would start hearing about the Tony Blair Democrats. Sure enough, this op-ed by Will Marshall in the Washington Post is called “The Blair Democrats: Ready for Battle.” Marshall has been a major force in the Democratic Leadership Council, the group of allegedly moderate “new Democrats” from which Bill Clinton emerged. He makes the valid point that some Democratic presidential hopefuls did not damage their prospects through their pronouncements prior to and during the war.
On the whole, however, Marshall’s piece is based on flawed analysis and wishful thinking. For example, Marshall implies that four of the five leading Democratic presidential contenders — Gephardt, Lierberman, Kerry and Edwards — came through the war without damage to their image on foreign policy issues, with only Howard Dean as the exception. In fact, Kerry’s cynical decision to support a war he almost surely didn’t want was undermined by his call for “regime change” in Washington, which he now dishonestly claims was just a “quip.” Kerry has been damaged. In addition, Marshall is too quick to dismiss the threat Dean poses to his happy scenario in which one of the so-called Blair Democrats faces President Bush in 2004. First, Marshall claims that two-thirds of Democrats approve of the war. Even if this is true, I very much doubt that it is the case among those who will count in Democratic primaries and caucuses. Second, to the extent Marshall is correct that Dean stands alone among the serious contenders as a perceived opponent of the war, Dean will likely corner a sizable block of Democratic voters. And Dean is probably not foreclosed from making in-roads among Democrats who supported the war, since, in the case of many, the support was luke warm and the war is not an important issue at this point.
Marshall also overlooks the likelihood that, if a “Blair Democrat” is nominated, an anti-war third party candidate will run. Is Marshall confident that, with perhaps 20 percent of the electorate fervently opposed to the war, no candidate will step into the void that a Gephardt, Edwards, or Lieberman candidacy would create? I’m not. Does he believe that an anti-war third party candidate would be unable to siphon off a fair number of votes? I don’t.
Next, Marshall’s suggestion that a Blair Democrat could effectively attack Bush by pointing to his “diplomatic failures” before the war strikes me as fanciful. I believe that the success of the war has rendered these alleged failures irrelevant. Somehow, it hardly seems to matter any more that the U.N. wasn’t on board, that we didn’t have more coalition partners, and that we couldn’t open a full-scale northern front because of the Turks. What will Kerry argue, that we should have won the war in two weeks? Actually, he may argue that our international standing has been harmed. But my sense is that swing voters now recognize that France, Germany, Russia, and the U.N. were the villains and that there was little Bush could have done to win them over. Any Democratic presidential candidate who suggests otherwise may soon to be claiming that he was just making a quip.
Finally, Marshall confuses 2004 and 1992. In 1992, foreign policy was not a major issue. Any Democrat who had not opposed the liberation of Kuwait could quickly move on to economic issues. In 2004, the real foreign policy issue will be terrorism, not Iraq. How central that issue is will depend on whether we experience more terrorist attacks and how the economy does. But the issue isn’t going to disappear, and thus it probably will not be enough for the Democratic nominee to have supported the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Voters will want to be confident that he (or she) will be an effective leader in the ongoing struggle against international terrorism. It will take more than the label “Blair Democrat” for the likes of John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, and John Edwards to instill that confidence.
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