It was the national security, stupid


Mark Follman
November 18, 2004 3:59AM (UTC)

Since the election, the popular narrative has held that Bush's victory tilted on the culture war. There is little doubt that "morality" and "values" were a substantial factor (even if individual voters defined those terms in any number of ways). But let's take a step back for a minute from the red-state, blue-state melodrama currently playing out on the national stage -- basic intuition says the election was, above all, a referendum on national security.

With respect to the Iraq war and the threat of terrorism, did the entire chattering class really forget so quickly about the long, steady campaign of fear mounted by BC'04, which culminated in wolves at the door?

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And don't just take our word for it: Reason magazine's Jesse Walker noted recently how the exit poll numbers lead to the same conclusion. Indeed, a plurality of 22 percent of voters said that "moral values" were the deciding factor, but, as Walker points out, "if you add together the 19% that said terrorism and the 15% that said Iraq -- and many voters, especially in the Bush camp, surely saw those as one and the same -- you get 34%, suggesting that this was a foreign policy election after all."

So as the losing party goes through its requisite handwringing and bloodletting in the wake of disaster '04, national security -- perhaps more so than same-sex marriage or abortion or prayer in the schools -- had better become the passion of the Dems.

Liberal hawk and blogger Michael Totten, who yesterday said that the Democratic party "is in shambles," outlines the imperative of carving out new space on the political left for dialogue on the issue.

"It is possible to be some kind of anti-Bush lefty and write thoughtful books and articles about national security without being a backseat heckler who opposes but offers no alternate vision. Paul Berman has managed to do it. But he labors away in an inhospitable left-wing environment that hardly has any room for him. For someone like me who doesn't have a lifetime's worth of street cred in the lefty press, I'm all but forced to play in the right's sandbox whether I like it or not. (But I don't dislike it as much as I did, and that's bad news for the Democrats. An entire genre of intellectuals like me exists and has a name -- neoconservatives -- because mine is all-too common a storyline.)

"These kinds of problems are self-reinforcing. The fewer intellectuals there are on the left who study military history and strategy, the less likely any otherwise left-minded person who is interested in such things will want or be able to work with or for liberals and Democrats. What has been happening is a nation-wide brain-drain from the left to the right -- at least in certain areas.

"I have a sinking feeling things will remain this way in the future to the horizon. Come on, Dems. Prove me wrong, would you please?"

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Totten isn't the only one of his kind who recognizes that national security is certain to remain critical in American politics for the foreseeable future. But as long as the culture war remains all the rage, he's likely to represent a minority party -- and the Dems are likely to keep seeing plenty of red.


Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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