Jonathan Gurwitz thinks 1984 may be at hand. He’s not referring to Orwell, but recalling the election in which Ronald Reagan scored one of the most sweeping victories in American history. Gurwitz recalls the famous “bear in the woods” commercial, which everyone seemed to like, except me:
“There’s a bear in the woods,” began the most effective television commercial of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign for re-election. “For some people the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it at all.”
This bit of political brilliance highlighted concerns about challenger Walter Mondale’s suitability to be commander in chief. It played on the broader fear in the post-Vietnam era that the Democratic Party had gone soft on security and could not be entrusted with the nation’s defense.
The bear spot, however, never mentioned national security or the Soviet Union, Democrats or Republicans, Mondale or Reagan. It didn’t even mention an election.
It was an allegory, and a devastating one at that, reminding the American people that the leadership of one party was actively confronting a menace to the United States, while the leadership of the other party was, at best, incapable of recognizing that menace or, at worst, undermining efforts to advance American security interests.
It’s happening again, Gurwitz thinks:
[C]an they avoid pandering to the hard-left interests that have repeatedly spelled electoral disaster for them since 1968 and instead address the concerns of average Americans? Can they prove that they see the bear and have a strategy for victory?
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean already provided an answer when he said, “The idea that the United States is going to win the war in Iraq is just plain wrong.”
And it came from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid when he gloated to party activists, “We killed the Patriot Act.”
There is indeed a bear in the woods … and in the desert and in the mountains and even, perhaps, in our own cities. And saying so doesn’t compel Americans to surrender their right to dissent against their government or cede any other constitutional rights.
To pretend it is not there, however, and to sublimate national security to score some cheap partisan points isn’t just bad politics, it’s also bad policy.
I’m not sure how strong the analogy between 1984 and 2006 is. One basic difference is that for a generation, resistance to the Communist threat was the bipartisan foundation of America’s foreign policy. While that consensus eroded starting in the 1960s, in 1984 there were still relatively few Americans who didn’t understand who the “bear” was or who doubted that military strength and preparedness were necessary for our defense. I’m not sure that’s true today. Any bipartisan consensus on the war on terror fell apart soon after September 2001, and I think there are a great many people who fervently believe that there is no “bear,” i.e., no significant terrorist threat, and whose wishful thinking leads to the conviction that if we stop our vigorous prosecution of the war, the terrorists will simply go away.
Which is not to say that the Democrats have embarked on a winning strategy. But I do think that the pacifist option is more viable politically today, than it was in 1984.