HOWARD DEAN ON NATIONAL SECURITY….Yesterday I noted in passing that while the DLC attacks on Howard Dean were probably misguided, I think the DLC is basically right that Dem candidates need to have a better national security story if they want to have a chance of beating George Bush. Matt Yglesias responded with a suggestion that in addition to good policies, Dems also need some good sound bites.
Now, I’ve made casual comments like this before about the Democrats in general and Howard Dean in particular, and have gotten a number of comments in return telling me that I really ought to go look at Dean’s official position statements before I criticize him. This is obviously a fair comment, so today I hopped over to his website and did just that.
Luckily for me, Dean gave a major address to the Council on Foreign Relations just a few weeks ago that outlined his thinking on national security. Unluckily for Dean supporters, my reaction is short and pungent: it stinks.
(I’ll explain this, of course, but first a note to Dean’s legion of fans before they descend on my comment section: I admit that my reaction might be unfair. It might also be overly harsh. But I am a veritable Mary Poppins compared to the gang of Republican fixers and spinners who are going to light into Dean if he wins the nomination, so consider this nothing more than a popgun shot across the bow.)
I’m going to focus on one part of Dean’s speech. After a long warmup that includes some moderately effective rhetoric about the challenges we face and how Bush has muffed them, he finally gets around to specifics:
As President, I would set four goals for American leadership:
First, defeat the threat posed by terrorists, tyrants, and technologies of mass destruction.
Second, strengthen our alliances and ensure Russia and China are fully integrated into a stable international order.
Third, enlarge the circle of beneficiaries of the growing world economy.
And fourth, ensure that life on our fragile planet is sustainable.
Already I’m skeptical. It’s not that I disagree about points 2-4, it’s just that I don’t think they make a very credible national security presentation. What people want to know is what are you going to do about terrorism during the next four years?
In fairness, that is Dean’s #1 point, so let’s take a look at how he expands on that:
In this fight, it is essential that America lead by example and exercise power responsibly. Only in that way can we hope to eliminate support for the next generation of extremists who regard our culture and our actions not simply with envy or jealousy but with a deep-seated hatred over the manner in which we conduct our affairs.
The Clinton administration was committed to military engagement with friends and allies around the world, helping to train and equip these countries so that they were better prepared to work with the U.S. in shouldering this burden. As President, my administration would redouble these efforts.
Here at home, we need a real commitment to homeland security….
[282 words follow about shoring up homeland security.]
I’m sorry, but this is just pathetic. A few pro forma words about being responsible and working with our allies, and that’s it? Followed by a quick jump to homeland security?
What does he think about military transformation? Relations with Saudi Arabia? The neocon domino theory? Reform of the CIA? Etc. etc.
Fairly or not, Dean more than anyone has to prove that he’s not just a squishy peacenik who doesn’t really know anything about national security issues. And while I realize that campaign speeches aren’t white papers, this was a major address to a serious audience, so I assume he put a good deal of thought into it and consulted with foreign policy experts in its preparation. If he had any major proposals for actively fighting terrorism he would have mentioned them, but I don’t see much there, and I don’t see any sound bites that he could extract from this speech either.
This kind of thing might sound good on the blogosphere, but if Dean wins the nomination he’s going to get pummeled on this stuff starting next summer ? and BushCo’s phasers are going to be set firmly on obliterate. He’d better have a bit more to say than this, or else we’ll be scraping him off the floor come November.
POSTSCRIPT: All the usual disclaimers apply. It’s early days. This speech was for a professional audience, not the general public. Dean might propose other ideas and hone his prose over the next few months. The mood of the country might move in Dean’s direction if postwar Iraq bogs down. Bush might get involved in some major gaffe. And it’s not fair that Republicans largely indulge in platitudes themselves and it doesn’t seem to hurt them.
All true. I just wouldn’t count on any of these things actually producing a victory, that’s all.
UPDATE: And please don’t tell me that George Bush sounded similarly clueless in 2000. I know that. But national security wasn’t front and center in 2000 and it is today ? and Bush has plenty of credibility on the subject, whether he deserves it or not. Them’s the breaks, and you’d better have some real firepower if you want to fight back.