The Democrats' Wimp Factor

The specter of John Kerry in 2004 is beginning to haunt the Democrats in 2008. It is the specter of wimpy campaigns past. It showed up, like Banquo's ghost, at the debate Wednesday night in Philadelphia, particularly when Hillary Clinton joined with ABC's George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson to nip away at the edges of Barack Obama's patriotism. Between the questions about Obama's meager association with William Ayers, a former Weatherman, and the suspicions raised by his lack of a flag lapel pin, the likely nominee is slowly being turned into John Kerry. He is becoming, in other words, a candidate who may be mostly right about national security but who will lack the Red State street cred to carry his point—and the election.

Once again timorous Democratic advisers behind the scenes are hoping they can run mainly on the ailing economy. While their candidates are urging an end to George W. Bush's war in Iraq, they are terrified of questioning the larger premises of his "war on terror" or John McCain's redefinition of it as the "transcendent challenge of the 21st century." Today's Dems are, in other words, proving unequal to the task of reclaiming the party's mostly honorable heritage on national security. This view is sadly out of touch, today more than ever. To little notice, Obama's tough, clearly stated position on Bush's war—that it was disastrously misdirected toward Iraq when Afghanistan was always the real front—is becoming conventional wisdom, even among the Bush administration's top security officials, like Defense Secretary Bob Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. During two days of nearly impenetrable testimony on Iraq by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker last week, one answer rang out as clearly as an alarm bell. Under questioning from Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Crocker admitted that Al Qaeda poses a greater threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan than it does in Iraq. No one knows more about this than the ambassador, an Arabic-speaking diplomat who previously served as envoy to Pakistan and whose career practically tells the story of America and the age of terror going back to the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut.

Yet the region that poses America's number one threat is getting little in attention and resources compared to Iraq. What Obama is arguing on the stump is pretty close to what Gates and the Joint Chiefs have been quietly hearing from their military advisers: that the best the United States can do with its scant NATO force of 37,000 in Afghanistan is to hold off the resurgent Taliban and their Al Qaeda guests in a stalemate. Under current conditions Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the chief culprits of 9/11, will continue to have plenty of room to roam, unharried by any large-scale U.S. or Pakistani effort to go after them. This is even truer today; next door to Afghanistan, Pakistan is transitioning into a post-Musharraf era and seeking to negotiate more with the extremists. Obama called last year for two additional brigades to be sent to Afghanistan, and last week he was joined by Biden, who told an audience at Georgetown University that "the longer we stay in Iraq, the more we put off the day when we fully join the fight against the real Al Qaeda threat and finally defeat those who attacked America seven years ago." Biden added that Gen. Dan McNeil, commander of the international force in Afghanistan, told him during a visit in February "that with two extra combat brigades—about 10,000 soldiers—he could turn around the security situation in the south, where the Taliban is on move. But he can't get them because of Iraq." Even Hillary Clinton has been tacking, very quietly, in Obama's direction.

No one, in other words, has a better case to make on national security right now than Barack Obama. John McCain is still out there contending that Iraq is the central battlefront and quoting Osama bin Laden favorably to justify his argument (not to mention mixing up Shiites and Sunnis). Under normal conditions this position might saddle McCain with a real "vulnerability"—to use a term the Dems like to employ about themselves—but it doesn't seem to hurt him much now. The Democrats are too afraid of his all-American "story," as Hillary put it. John Kerry, a winner of the Silver Star in Vietnam, spent most of his 2004 campaign defending himself against vague suggestions of treason based on his antiwar testimony in 1971, when as a young officer returning from Vietnam he asked, penetratingly and relevantly for today, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Obama is being placed on the defensive on flimsy grounds as well, and there he's likely to stay, rendered permanently suspicious by association thanks to questions about Ayers and the "anti-American" statements of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. As Clinton said helpfully during the debate, "It goes to this larger set of concerns about how we are going to run against John McCain." She's right, but her fears are self-fulfilling. The more damage she does to Obama, the harder it will be for him to take the offensive against a bona fide patriot and war hero like McCain. Safer just to talk about the economy and health care.

Insecurity over national security has been eating at the Democrats ever since Vietnam destroyed the party's proud self-image, which was forged by FDR, Truman and JFK in World War II and the early years of cold war containment (both Democratic success stories). Obama, by most accounts, is confident of his ability to reclaim this grand tradition. "Of all people I've dealt with on foreign policy issues, this guy takes to it like a duck to water," one of his top advisers, Greg Craig, a former State Department policy planning chief, told me recently. But the party's peculiar pathology could yet drag Obama down. He's getting Kerryized. At a time when he should be taking on John McCain, he's being forced to talk about lapel pins.