How Radical Are the Democrats?

Kathryn Lopez says Russ Feingold, not Hillary Clinton, is the favorite to win the Democrats’ 2008 Presidential nomination. He’s “Howard Dean without the delicate psyche,” as she quotes one consultant, and the Democrats are now dominated, as the Lieberman primary showed, by the Kos Kidz and like-minded groups. Lopez thinks (and I agree) that unless something changes, the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party will triumph in 2008 and immediate withdrawal from Iraq will become that party’s platform.

But how threatening is that prospect? A hypothetical Democratic President won’t take office until January 2009. Between then and now, the Bush administration will have done everything humanly possible to reduce troop levels in Iraq. Already, large areas of that country have been turned over to Iraqi security forces. Baghdad gets all the media attention because it is undergoing an unacceptable level of violence. But that’s the exception, not the rule, and by 2009 there will be few, if any, troops left in Iraq in combat roles. That will be true, I think, even if Iraq (or part of it, anyway) descends into civil war between Sunni and Shia militias. Already, “immediate withdrawal” looks a lot like “stay the course,” with Congresional debates over whether to set a timetable, not over the desirability of getting our troops out of Iraq, which has always been the administration’s fervent desire. By 2009, I think those differences, already subtle, will be more or less moot.

So why is the battle between the Democrats’ antiwar and not-as-antiwar factions important? The differences are mostly stylistic and political, I think. Stylistically, most Democrats prefer, if they can get away with it, the excitement and faux moral superiority they get from clear-cut opposition to a war. A rabid antiwar candidate will always be closest to most Democrats’ hearts. More important, though, is the political equation. Most Democrats believe that the Iraq war was a mistake–more important, a mistake for which Republicans should pay. After years in the Washington wilderness, many Democrats see the Bush administration’s perceived missteps in Iraq as their ticket back to power. But they have a big problem in trying to use the war for political ends: most of their Senators voted for it. In order to capitalize on the war’s unpopularity, they need a candidate who was against the war from the beginning. Like Russ Feingold. Even if the war is pretty much over by the fall of 2008, as I expect it will be, the Democrats want to run a campaign that can be summed up as: “We told you so.” Feingold can do that; Clinton can’t.

As a practical matter, I question how much the Democrats’ apparent tilt to the left will matter in policy terms. It’s true, in principle, that a hard liberal like Feingold will be less inclined to use American military force in post-Iraq situations than a more conservative Democrat, or a Republican. But the reality is that no administration that takes office in 2009, Republican or Democrat, will have any appetite for another ground war in the Middle East. For the foreseeable future, that isn’t going to happen, no matter who inhabits the White House.

That leaves Iran, and the prospect of using force short of an invasion to prevent or deter Iran from becoming a nuclear power. What the Democrats intend to do about Iran is a dark secret, and, if they have their way, will remain one until 2009. Their only strategy at present is to be well-poised for second guessing. But it looks increasingly as though Iran can’t wait until 2009. One way or another, that problem will have been addressed by the time the next Presidential election rolls around, and the debate will have shifted in ways that we can’t now foresee.

So I think the most that can be said is that an antiwar Democratic administration will be somewhat less likely to use military force, as a general matter, than a Republican administration would be. But, given our experience in Iraq, that gap may not be very wide.

A liberal Democrat administration would also be more likely to adopt a neutral position between Israel and the terrorists, to look to the U.N. for guidance on issues relating to Israel, to exert heavy pressure on Israel to compromise with the terrorists, and so on. Again, though, I think the practical difference may not be as great as one might think, given the anti-Israel sentiment that is so often expressed on the left. In the recent conflict with Hezbollah, there was strikingly little partisan division over the President’s support for Israel. No doubt an antiwar administration would have made public statements less supportive of Israel, and would have started sooner to pressure Israel to agree to a cease fire. The Bush administration gave Israel four weeks to fight; a Feingold administration would have exerted pressure sooner. But, again, there are still enough pro-Israel Democrats that the difference may not be as great as one would expect from reading Democratic Underground or the Daily Kos.

In terms of the broader war against terror, I think the danger posed by a liberal Democrat like Feingold may also be overstated. Once a Democratic President actually takes power, his number one priority will be preventing terrorist attacks on American soil, for the best of all possible reasons: self-interest. The anti-terror tools pioneered by the Bush administration will be used with equal vigor, I think, by any Democrat, no matter how liberal, who may follow. Anyone who thinks, for example, that a Democratic President would stop eavesdropping on international conversations among terrorists, and thereby risk being blamed for another September 11, is seriously misguided. Actually, I would expect a Democratic administration to be less scrupulous than the Bush administration has been in respecting civil liberties. Democrats, more than Republicans, tend to believe that their being in power is an a priori good so desirable that it justifies bending the rules where necessary, and they know that, unlike Republicans, they will not be criticized in the press for trying to keep Americans safe.

So I don’t think it is either surprising or, from a political standpoint, unwise for the Democrats to turn to an antiwar figure like Feingold, or whoever else may emerge between now and the summer of 2008. And, while I would far prefer a Republican administration, or, failing that, a more moderate Democratic one, I think it is easy to overstate the practical consequences for our foreign policy should an antiwar candidate be elected.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not saying that there would be no important foreign policy differences between, say, a Feingold administration and a McCain, Allen or Giuliani administration. There would be. But I think the practical reality is that events in Iraq have constrained what a conservative administration can do, while the overriding need to forestall terrorist attacks constrains what a liberal administration can do. As a result, the gap in practice between the two alternatives would be, I think, much narrower than one might expect from the rhetorical gulf that separates the parties.

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