November 10, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

Let the Battles Begin

A long and hard-fought political campaign has ended, but there will be no rest for the weary. Instead, it's time for new battles to begin. The most consequential will be not between America's two major political parties — but within each of them.

These conflicts are always more difficult for the losing party. So let's start there.

Democrats will need to decide what is broken before they can fix it. But many Democrats are in deep denial, telling themselves they lost because their candidates weren't far enough to the left, or that an epidemic of homophobia swept the nation, or that legions of Low-brow Lovers of the Baby Jesus emerged from the misty hills and hollers of Red State America to steal the power that rightfully belongs to those who drive Volvos and watch public television. 

That is all nonsense. The chief — and most correctable — reason Democrats lost is this: Senator Kerry was neither consistent nor credible on national security. That is a severe electoral disability in a time of war (which — for the record – is what this is).

Democrats once were warriors. Franklin Roosevelt determined to wipe out totalitarianism in its German Nazi, Italian Fascist and Japanese militarist forms.

The Marshall Plan, to revive Europe, and the policy of containment, to defend freedom, were Harry Truman's robust responses to the menace of communism.

In 1960, Jack Kennedy ran to Richard Nixon's right on national security.

After Kennedy, however, as the US became bogged down in Vietnam, “anti-war activists” rose to the top of the Democratic Party. As a result, during the height of the Cold War — from 1969, when Lyndon Johnson left the White House, to 1992 when Bill Clinton moved in – a Democrat could not be elected president. The only exception was Jimmy Carter whose path was cleared by the Watergate scandal. And he was voted out of office after he responded to the rise of radical Islamism in Iran with bewildered incompetence.

Some Democrats understand. Sen. Zell Miller and former New York Mayor Ed Koch were unapologetic in their preference for Bush over Kerry.

Sen. Joe Lieberman remained loyal to the Democratic nominee but worried that, “Some in my party are sending out a message that they don't know a just war when they see it, and, more broadly, are not prepared to use our military strength to protect our national security and the cause of freedom.”

Rep. Jim Marshall (D-GA) – a decorated Vietnam veteran — also stuck by Kerry, but last May he began warning his fellow Democrats that “success in Iraq is now the first agenda item for Americans … [a]nd showing America's resolve is the first order of business.” 

Democratic campaign strategist Donna Brazile, whose father served in the Korean War, long has been arguing that Democratic leaders must be firm and clear about national security threats.

Way back in May 2003, she predicted: “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 [on national security] they will not listen to our message next year and they will re-elect Mr. Bush.”

In the wake of Kerry's loss, muscular Democrats have a chance to re-position their party – but George Soros, Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean, Jimmy Carter, Michael Moore, Barbra Streisand and their ilk are not going to make it easy.

Meanwhile, back on the Republican ranch, the foreign policy conflict is between “neo-conservatives” and “neo-realists.” The latter believe that it is naïve, quixotic – even retro-liberal — to attempt to help bring freedom and democracy to regions that have been hip-deep in despotism for centuries. Better, they claim, to deal with dictators you know than democrats you don't. In recent months, the “neo-realists” have felt some wind in their sails thanks to the difficulties in Iraq.

The “neo-cons,” by contrast, believe that backing bad regimes, in the Middle East or elsewhere, provides only an illusory stability. Americans, they argue, end up with partners who blackmail us, encourage their populations to hate us and export terrorism when it benefits them.

In his first press conference after winning re-election, President Bush endorsed the neo-cons' transformative agenda. “There is a certain attitude in the world, by some, that says that it's a waste of time to try to promote free societies in parts of the world,” he said.  “I just strongly disagree with those who do not see the wisdom of trying to promote free societies around the world. If we are interested in protecting our country for the long-term, the best way to do so is to promote freedom and democracy. And I simply do not agree with those who either say overtly or believe that certain societies cannot be free.”

Perhaps Bush will be persuaded to re-think that position. Whom he appoints to key positions will be the tip-off. But I wouldn't bet in favor of him changing his mind. As even his critics acknowledge, Bush is one Texan who sticks to his guns. And he needn't worry about re-election.

– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.