Kerry vs. the Base

KERRY vs. THE BASE….I guess I can’t promise that this will absolutely, positively be the last post about Peter Beinart’s “Fighting Faith” article, but it probably will be. However, I think it’s worth posting one more link since I agree completely with this critique of Beinart’s thesis from Noam Scheiber:

Peter…argues that there are structural forces within the [Democratic] party that prevent it, or its candidates, from fully embracing national security issues–namely, the party’s reflexively dovish left-wing, best epitomized by Michael Moore and, which he dubs “softs”….In retrospect, we were all too pessimistic. A heartbreakingly close 2000 election and three years of chafing under Bush had made Democratic primary voters incredibly pragmatic. They valued winning much more than they valued ideological purity, as they eventually demonstrated by nominating Kerry.

….Peter is right that, even during this time, interest in national security among the Democratic rank and file was low (though the polling data he cites doesn’t capture the obvious hostility to the Bush administration’s Iraq policies). But the Democratic base was so pragmatic in its determination to oust Bush that Kerry could have gotten away with proposing a truly dramatic foreign policy initiative–say, a get-tough policy on Iran, possibly culminating in a military strike–without suffering more than a handful of defections. Making proposals like this a central theme of his campaign would have jarred swing voters out of the presumption that Kerry and the party were chronically suspicious of exercising military power.

There’s no telling what would have happened if Kerry had done this, of course, but I think Noam is right. As near as I can tell, Kerry’s stock went up whenever he talked tough on national security but stalled when he drifted onto other issues. And when he did talk tough, he didn’t suffer any defections. My guess is that talking even tougher wouldn’t have caused any significant defections either.

What’s more, Kerry actually had plenty of toughminded national security proposals. As I wrote shortly after the election:

John Kerry made significant inroads when he spoke plainly about hunting down terrorists and killing them, as he did in the first debate, but he was never really willing to much further than that.

Why? Why didn’t he make a bigger deal out of his plan to increase the size of the Army by 40,000 troops? Why didn’t he make a bigger deal out of his desire to get tougher with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan? Why didn’t he make a bigger deal about George Bush’s unwillingness to confront the Arab world over their continued funding of radical madrassas?

Did Kerry not do this because he was afraid of alienating part of his base? Maybe, but my guess is that he just decided not to. If he’d had a little more confidence in his own proposals, the election might have turned out quite differently.

POSTSCRIPT: Steve Rosenthal, the CEO of America Coming Together, comes to a similar conclusion in the Washington Post.