Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Neo-Isolationists/Democrats

I like Mona Charen and I think her critique of Bush’s speech at NRO has much to offer the Administration as a heuristic device for future speeches and policies. She argues that Bush missed an opportunity last night to shore up his conservative base to and make a reasonable argument about the limits of democracy (e.g., Hamas winning Palestinian elections and, therefore, democracy does not always equal freedom). The problem with her argument, it seems to me, is that it--while correct in a strict sense on some levels--misses the big picture. Shoring up the conservative base is important--to be sure--but it is not the most important function of a SOTU speech. Besides, we conservatives were on the heels of getting Alito and the now more or less certain knowledge that we’ll probably get at least one more before Bush’s term is out. The Dems are committing political suicide all around us. We should’ve been shored up enough yesterday to bear with him in this speech. Calm down.

The biggest political problem we face as a nation--and no one sees this more clearly than Bush in my view--is the success that Dems have had in dividing us from each other and misleading the people about our purposes in the world. Painting the Dems as new-fangled isolationists (put another way, a new take on yet another discredited idea) was a brilliant strategy. There are too many well-meaning but misguided Americans who do not support the idea that America must be engaged in this war on terror or in the world generally. Never mind the details of how we wage the war or how we are engaged in the world for now. It will be impossible to sort through all of that if we don’t have enough support for the idea that we must be in it in the first place. I am heartened that Bush seems finally to have taken Dems out on the carpet for their fool-hardy politics. He is reminding people that the Dems are the masters of stupid policies that, if followed, will get us killed (after they sink us into poverty). I think it was brilliant to link this neo-isolationism in foreign policy to its twin policy in trade--protectionism. People know on a gut level that the world is changed forever by faster communications and emerging markets. My children will have to compete in a marketplace dominated not only with the leading lights of their generation in America--but with kids growing up in straw huts somewhere in China or India. It’s a bigger, more complicated world, than the policies born out of mid-20th century labor politics can handle. The Democratic party of today is so mired in its past that it is not only incapable of leading--it is nearly irrelevant. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear, saw and heard that last night.

Mona is right that more (much more) will need to be done to make Republicans equal to the challenge. But the Democrats aren’t even in the right starting gate. A couple days of basking in this glow are in order. We need to see the big picture clearly before we move on to the harder work Mona proposes. Win the mid-terms and then get to work making our party stronger, smarter and more effective.

Discussions - 4 Comments


One way to make our party "stronger, smarter and more effective" would be stronger, smarter and more effective speechmaking by the president. When he speaks vaguely of "politics" and "partisanship" in Washington, he fails to identify what’s going on. He appears to be blaming Congress as a whole, not the Democratic party. A comparable lack of clarity by Lincoln is almost unimaginable, and would certainly have been disastrous. As a Republican, I am offended by such lack of clarity when it is so common that it’s really a staple of Bush communication. If I were a Republican congressman or senator, with our majorities at stake this year, I’d be even more offended.

The Democratic party failed this week with Alito because they were in a structurally difficult position. There was a real chance that the constitutional option might be invoked, leaving them with a weaker defense against the fifth conservative justice, should Bush get lucky and be able to make such an appointment (and dare to). Cooler heads in the party chose to fight another day. The Dems also performed poorly in the hearings. But the Republicans did not perform brilliantly, and fluffed this rare opportunity to educate a wide audience about judicial tyranny.

The Democratic party holds 45 seats in the Senate, more than enough to shred Bush’s domestic program (the mostly have) and to present a constant threat to his foreign and security policies. Equally important, the Democrats have perhaps 10 Republican senators under their sway on one issue or another. And they are at least an even bet to take back the White House in 2008.

While they have injured themselves in various ways, they will not self-destruct. Conservatives too often assume that the American people are paying attention to how the Democrats conduct themselves, making sophisticated judgments about the Democrats’ unworthiness, and giving points to the Republicans for being responsible and "having ideas."

If all that were true, the polls would be looking much better across the board, and the best Republican candidates would be running for the vulnerable Democratic seats. They aren’t.

I’m reminded of a New Yorker cartoon many years ago: "They say Castro’s days are numbered. But it appears to be a rather high number."


The foreign-policy section of the speech was good, except for its failure to blame the Democrats by name (a serious mistake). Tying the antiwar crowd to isolationism, as well as defeatism and carping, was excellent.
But why not take that extra step and nail it down?

The problem is that most of the critics of the Iraq War are not isolationists, properly understood. The term might apply to supporters of Pat Buchanan, but not to most Democrats, who would gladly commit U.S. forces abroad at the behest of the United Nations. Nor would it be proper to apply the label "isolationist" to those who believe in generous federal foreign-aid programs. The fact is, I tend to have some respect for "isolationists" (in the tradition of Robert A. Taft) inasmuch as they are primarily motivated by concern for the national interest.

Even the America Firsters weren’t genuine isolationists in many cases.
But they favored what amounted to isolation in the decisive case, that of Hitler. The same points can be made in regard to most Democrats today. While it is not strictly accurate to call them isolationists, it is nonetheless fair in the broad language of politics.

I agree with you that the isolationists of 1940 were patriots, however wrong, with the exceptionists of commies, fellow-travelers, and pro-Nazis. With the Left today, the picture is more complicated. Some are patriots but genuinely wrong. But I think the old isolationists deserve more credit for patriotism than most of today’s deserve.

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