Democrats don’t have a death wish. It just seems that way. What they actually have is a habit of falling into the national security trap. They did it in 1972. They did it in 1984. They did it in 1994. They did it in 2002. And they’re doing it again this year as they prepare for the 2006 midterm elections, in which they hope to produce a breakthrough as sweeping and decisive as Republicans achieved in 1994.
The national security trap is simple. When faced with a choice between supporting or criticizing the use of military force along with a strong national security policy, Democrats often side with the critics. Which is how they fall into the trap, which leads to electoral defeat. When they back a vigorous defense of America’s national security, however, the opposite happens. They usually win. Even when Democrats merely neutralize the national security issue–this happened in 1996 and 1998–or the issue is peripheral, they stand a good chance of winning.
At the moment, Democrats are convinced the country has turned against the war in Iraq. So House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is quite comfortable declaring the war a “grotesque mistake” and boasting that she has thought so from the start. Senator Edward Kennedy felt confident enough last week to inform American generals home from Iraq that the war is an “intractable quagmire.” This prompted a sharp rebuke from General George Casey, the top commander in Iraq. “You have an insurgency with no vision, no base, limited popular support, an elected government, committed Iraqis to the democratic process, and you have Iraqi security forces that are fighting and dying for their country every day,” Casey said. “Senator, that is not a quagmire.”
Kennedy lost that exchange. And Democrats did no better on a related issue, the treatment of terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. Senate Democratic whip Dick Durbin was forced to apologize for likening the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to that of the Soviet gulag, Hitler’s death camps, and the Cambodian killing fields. What was striking was the matter-of-fact manner in which Durbin drew the parallel in the first place. He seemed to be oblivious to the possibility he might be seen as worrying more about the detainees than about America’s national security.
Democrats haven’t learned the lesson on national security from elections over the past 30-plus years. In 1972, Democrats thought the public had turned strongly against the war in Vietnam. So they nominated a fervent antiwar candidate, George McGovern. He lost in a landslide to incumbent Richard Nixon.