May 20, 2003 | Wall Street Journal

What Would Scoop Do?

By Donna Brazile and Timothy Bergreen

Forty-eight hours after President Bush told a cheering throng of sailors on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln that major combat in Iraq was over, the nine candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination held their first debate, in Charleston, S.C. It would have been a perfect occasion for a serious discussion of the national-security challenges that we as a nation face in the wake of the Iraq war. Instead, we were seen fighting among ourselves on national television over whether the United States will continue to be the world's dominant military power.

At the Iowa debate in Des Moines last weekend, there was more unanimity, but chiefly in the narrow context of criticizing the president's handling of the war against al Qaeda. While Iowa was a good start, there is much work to be done if we Democrats are to address a perception that has dogged our party for three decades: that we are AWOL on national security.

In the midst of a war on terrorism, our party and its leaders must wake up to the fact that we can no longer give short shrift to security issues if we hope to regain our status as the majority party. After Sept. 11, Democrats adopted the strategy of “me-too-ing” Mr. Bush on terrorism and then trying to change the subject as quickly as possible. Last fall, congressional Democrats, desperate to frame the midterm elections around economic issues, hurriedly and halfheartedly authorized President Bush to use force in Iraq. In the end, the Democrats were, as Newsweek put it then, “inaudible, incoherent, impotent,” and the Republicans succeeded in reversing the historical trend of the president's party losing seats in the midterm elections and seized control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — and of the nation's political agenda.

It was not always this way. Throughout much of the last century, Democrats were the party of strong defense and muscular internationalism, while Republicans were often the party of isolationism. Traditional Democrats guided America through two world wars and were the architects of our policy of containment against the Soviet Union. From Franklin Roosevelt's insistence on the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in World War II, through Harry Truman's refusal to acquiesce to the North Korean invasion of the South or the Soviet attempt to starve the Western powers out of Berlin, to John F. Kennedy's steely-eyed showdown with Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, to the pro-defense legislation of Sen. Scoop Jackson — the Democratic mentor of some of today's most prominent Republican hawks — the Democratic Party met the great challenges posed by the enemies of the Free World.

The Vietnam War split the Democrats as it did the nation, and by the early 1970s, the “peace wing” of the party had taken over. Ever since, Republicans haven't had to work terribly hard to win electoral success by portraying a string of Democrats from George McGovern to Michael Dukakis as weak on defense and hostile to the military. Our own fathers, one a World War II veteran, the other a veteran of the Korean War, both wonder what happened to the old Democratic Party that honored their service and did not shrink from a fight when it was in America's interest.

Even when we have demonstrated toughness and foresight — as President Clinton did in deploying military force to reverse ethnic cleansing in the Balkans — we have not blown our own bugle. Polling throughout the 2000 general election campaign showed Mr. Bush with a 3-to-1 lead over Al Gore on military issues, despite the fact that Mr. Gore proposed spending $100 million more on defense than his Republican rival.

Mr. Clinton's victory in 1992 convinced many Democrats that the Republican advantage on national security was no longer consequential. But the 1992 campaign was an exception — Mr.Clinton's election took place in the context of post-Cold War euphoria over the “end of history,” with politicians salivating over the prospects of a “peace dividend.”

Democrats have yet to fully comprehend the new reality of the post-Sept. 11 world. While most Americans viewed the war in Iraq through the prism of the Twin Towers attacks, many prominent Democrats still seem not to grasp the profound sense of insecurity that so many people feel in our country. This unease is especially pronounced among women, who have been a cornerstone of our party's strength and without whom we cannot hope to win back the White House or Congress.

The American people agree with us on many vital issues — but they believe that we Democrats are weak and indecisive when it comes to standing up to dictators and terrorists, and when it comes to the primary responsibility of government: defending the nation. No matter how compelling our positions on the economy, health care, Social Security, the environment and privacy, if voters continue to see us as feckless and effete they will not listen to our message next year and they will re-elect Mr. Bush.

As we prepare to mount our challenge in 2004, Democrats need to return to the muscular national security principles of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and the other Democrats who understood that only by confronting threats abroad could our party achieve its other great mission of expanding equality, opportunity and progress here at home.

Ms. Brazile, who served as the campaign manager for Gore 2000, is a political strategist and a member of the board of advisers of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism. Mr. Bergreen served in the State Department during the Clinton administration and is the founder of Democrats for National Security.