March 14, 2005


THE UNBRANDING: Can the Democrats make themselves look tough? (JEFFREY GOLDBERG, 2005-03-14, The New Yorker)

Not all Democratic leaders agree that a credibility problem on national security exists. Kerry, for one, believes it doesn’t. “The country had concluded that I was prepared to be Commander-in-Chief,” he told me last week. The fifty-nine million votes he received, he said, should be proof enough that he was perceived as strong on the issue. “If we’d had a switch of sixty thousand votes”—in Ohio—“you’d have had a better outcome.”

We met in his Capitol Hill office. In the reception area stood a model, under glass, of the Swift boat that he commanded in Vietnam. Kerry appeared drawn and pale, but he was animated in defense of his campaign. “The bottom line is that, if you look at the data, the appearance of the Osama bin Laden tape had a profound impact. The fact is, we flatlined on that day. I presented stronger arguments, but there was a visceral unwillingness to change Commander-in-Chief five days after the bin Laden tape.”

Kerry considers himself to be a national-security-oriented Democrat—Holbrooke, too, puts him in that camp—and appeared to take no particular offense at Biden’s criticisms. “I’m not going to dissect the campaign,” he said. But he seemed displeased when I asked whether the Democrats had a credibility problem on defense issues, and he finally said, “Look, the answer is, we have to do an unbranding.” By this he meant that the Democrats had to do a better job of selling to the American people what he believes is already true—that the Democrats are every bit as serious on the issue as Republicans. “We have to brand more effectively. It’s marketing.”

Most national-security Democrats believe that the Party’s problems on the issue go deeper than marketing. They agree that the Party should be more open to the idea of military action, and even preëmption; and although they did not agree about the timing of the Iraq war and the manner in which Bush launched it, they believe that the stated rationale—Saddam’s brutality and his flouting of United Nations resolutions—was ideologically and morally sound. They say that the absence of weapons of mass destruction was more a failure of intelligence than a matter of outright deception by the Administration; and although they do not share the neoconservatives’ enthusiastic belief in the transformative power of military force, they accept the possibility that the invasion of Iraq might lead to the establishment of democratic institutions there.

In addition, national-security Democrats try to distance themselves from the Party’s post-Vietnam ambivalence about the projection of American power. In other words, they are men and women who want to reach back to an age of Democratic resoluteness, embodied by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy. Their mission may have been complicated earlier this year by Howard Dean’s victory in the race for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, although Dean, the most stridently antiwar of the major candidates in 2004, has promised to suppress the urge to comment on foreign policy.

Biden could find little to say about Dean, other than this: “No goddam chairman’s ever made a difference in the history of the Democratic Party.” His colleague Joseph Lieberman, who is perhaps the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus, said, “Dean was wrong on the war and what he was talking about was bad for the country. We’ll see what he does as chairman. If he devotes his energies to building a party at the base, as he talked about doing, good for him. If he continues to be a prominent spokesman on defense policy, I would regret it.”

Lieberman is a study in the dangers of steroidal muscularity, becoming an outlier in his own party. (He has edged to the right as his running mate in the 2000 election, Al Gore, has moved leftward.) His fate was sealed with a kiss, planted on his cheek by Bush, just after the President delivered his State of the Union address. “That may have been the last straw for some of the people in Connecticut, the blogger types,” Lieberman told me. But he is unapologetic about his defense of Bush’s Iraq policy, saying, “Bottom line, I think Bush has it right.” When I asked if he was becoming a neoconservative, Lieberman smiled and said, “No, but some of my best friends are neocons.”

We especially enjoy the buzz around Mr. Lieberman these days, who seems an ever poorer fit with his party, but here's the funniest line in the essay: “This is a very lucky President,” Biden said. “Why did Arafat die on his watch? I mean, give me a break.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 14, 2005 11:50 PM

Credibility problem? Us?

Sounds kind of like the philosophical speculations of Alfred E. Neumann.

But without the thoughtfulness.

(On the other hand, seems the DP is going for the 12-16-year-old vote. Preparing the ground, so to spoke. Admirably forward looking.)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at March 15, 2005 2:30 AM

This is a very lucky President, Biden said. Why did Arafat die on his watch? I mean, give me a break.

Luck is the residue of design.

-- Branch Rickey

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 15, 2005 2:37 AM

Better be lucky than delusional.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at March 15, 2005 6:55 AM

That great philosopher, Yogi Berra, said: "I'd rather be lucky than smart." Looks like our president is both. Aren't we lucky we were smart enough to elect him.

Biden, on the other hand, is neither lucky nor smart enough to keep his mouth shut.

Posted by: erp at March 15, 2005 8:23 AM

Why did Arafat die on his watch?" sounds suspiciously like the complaint some former Clinton Administration people were making in the days and weeks following 9/11, "Why couldn't something big like this happened on Clinton's watch?" so that the former president could have proved himself to be a great leader in historical times.

No doubt Clinton would have done something after his own 9/11 -- Dick Morris' polls would have told him something had to be done. But as he showed countless times, he was not going to risk any of his popular support in the polls by pushing on to possibly unpopular things, like a land war in Iraq. Outside of Lieberman and a few others, the best you can hope for right now is someone in the party who will react to a catastrophic terror attack on the U.S., but who otherwise will be content to shoot more missiles into empty tents and hit camels in the butt to maintain the image of action -- or in the case of Arafat, uttering a few platitudes about it being a time for change and then settling back to continue with the current status quo.

Posted by: John at March 15, 2005 8:24 AM

This is a parody piece, right?

Posted by: Bob at March 15, 2005 9:58 AM

We have to brand more effectively. Its marketing.

EXACTLY! That's why I voted for Bush. Marketing, baby! ALL Marketing! To hell with the message. What message? Just give me loads of dynomite packaging and I'll show you the next leader of the free world.

Please. These people are so confused. Their only new ideas are to make sure they don't focus on new ideas. Just recycle the broken, rejected garbage but dress it up until it 'reeks of cool' like, ya know, they do in LA.

Posted by: John Resnick at March 15, 2005 11:28 AM

I think this is their real problem, they are looking for a new trick, when they really need a new idea.

Hasn't it occurred to them that as Americans are bombarded with slick marketing 24/7/365 that we might be more or less impervious to it.

Posted by: AML at March 15, 2005 11:36 AM

Biden has now exceeded Boxer in terms of stupidity, which is quite an accomplishment.

Delaware should be proud.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 15, 2005 1:21 PM


Oh, we are. But fortunately, Biden has an ambitious son who's equally dim and cynical but has more hair, and our local GOP is terminally inept, so we can be assured of sending a Biden to the Senate for the next half-century or so. Just as long as they bring in the Amtrak funding.

Posted by: Random Lawyer at March 15, 2005 2:28 PM

Actually, the real humor here is Kerry's delusion that the nation was ready to accept him as Commander-in-Chief. Had he been elected, Form 180 probably would have forced his resignation (if our guesses as to what is really in there are true). At the least, he would have been neutered. OJ's assertion that he would have prosecuted the war as severely as Bush seems too reliant on comparisons to LBJ. Remember, Johnson was from Texas and knew how to fight political battles, if nothing else.

Kerry is just a popinjay from Boston.

Posted by: ratbert at March 15, 2005 2:58 PM

"the complaint some former Clinton Administration people were making in the days and weeks following 9/11, "Why couldn't something big like this happened on Clinton's watch?" so that the former president could have proved himself to be a great leader in historical times."

Chance favors the prepared mind.

Lets see. 1st WTC. Mogadishu. Khobar Towers. Africa Embassy Bombings. USS Cole.

At least 5 chances there. anmd that is without any research.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 16, 2005 12:49 AM

      The key problem for the Democrats is that they still don't get it.  They're looking at how to manipulate public perceptions.

      Look at the subtitle: Can the Democrats make themselves look tough?

      They can't make themselves look tough, because they aren't.  We elected Clinton because we thought we wouldn't have to worry about foreign policy for decades.  Clinton threw his weight around in Mogadishu for a while.  Then, when 18 Rangers died, he cut and ran.  He spent years nerving himself to give an ultimatum to Haiti.  He let the Rwandans get slaughtered.  He did nothing in the former Yugoslavia for years, then intervened with air power only.  He ignored al-Qaeda, and he responded to Saddam's terrorism with cruise missiles launched at an empty building.

      Bill Maher was almost right.  It was cowardly to throw missiles at someone from a distance.  His error was in thinking that Clinton was the USAmerican people.

      The Democrats don't seem tough because they aren't.  W. seems tough because he is.  That's why we re-elected him.  And until the Democrats start being tough, we won't trust them with the country.


Posted by: Stephen M. St. Onge at March 16, 2005 1:08 AM