The Magazine

The Majority Party

From the September 13, 2004 issue: The Roosevelt-Truman tradition is there for the taking. President Bush can follow up on the success of his convention by moving to take it.

Sep 13, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 01 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Fortunately, we had a resolute president named Truman, who, with the American people, persevered, knowing that a new democracy at the center of Europe would lead to stability and peace.

George W. Bush, at the Republican convention

Those policies--containing communism, deterring attack by the Soviet Union, and promoting the rise of democracy--were carried out by Democratic and Republican presidents in the decades that followed.
Dick Cheney, at the Republican convention

It was Democratic president Harry Truman who pushed the Red Army out of Iran, who came to the aid of Greece when Communists threatened to overthrow it, who stared down the Soviet blockade of West Berlin by flying in supplies and saving the city. . . . [O]ne-half of Europe was freed because Franklin Roosevelt led an army of liberators, not occupiers.

Zell Miller, at the Republican convention

In a time of deep distress at home, as tyranny strangled the aspirations to liberty of millions, and as war clouds gathered in the West and East, Franklin Delano Roosevelt accepted his party's nomination by observing . . .

John McCain, at the Republican convention

WHOSE PARTY was it in New York last week, anyway? Bush, Cheney, Miller, and McCain mentioned Franklin Roosevelt a total of seven times and Harry Truman twice--always favorably. John Kerry, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton, speaking in comparable slots at the Democratic convention, mentioned Truman not at all and Roosevelt a grand total of once, when the presidential nominee announced, "So now I'm going to say something that Franklin Roosevelt could never have said in his acceptance speech: Go to johnkerry.com."

So the break between the World War II/Cold Warrior Democrats and the post-Vietnam Democrats is complete. The Clinton-Gore-Lieberman tickets tried to bridge these two camps, and succeeded, at least electorally: In 1992, 1996, and 2000, somewhat hawkish and interventionist, more or less pro-first Gulf War Democratic tickets won popular pluralities for the first time since Vietnam (with the exception of the narrow victory Watergate gave Jimmy Carter in 1976). In governing, the Clinton-Gore team also tried to bridge the two tendencies in their party.

The bridge was blown up by Iraq, and by the early success of Howard Dean. Dean imploded, and John Kerry--the next most dovish of the serious candidates--was there to pick up the pieces. A dove who was a Vietnam vet--how politically perfect! He could win the Democratic nomination and the general election. Or could he? Kerry's dovishness may well go too deep for general election voters. He opposed the first Gulf War. Before that, he was a leader in the fight against Reagan's Central America policy, and against Reagan's defense buildup. Even earlier, in 1971, he had linked his call to cut and run from Vietnam to an indictment of "the mystical war against communism" and of a U.S. policy that was "murdering" 200,000 Vietnamese a year. In 2003, he joined a few Senate Democrats to oppose the $87 billion supplemental appropriation for Iraq and Afghanistan.

No one believes these stances are in the tradition of Roosevelt and Truman--or John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. It is the alternative Democratic tradition of, say, Adlai Stevenson and George McGovern, of Cy Vance and Warren Christopher, that moves Kerry, and that now utterly dominates the Democratic party.

Which means the Roosevelt-Truman tradition is there for the taking. President Bush can follow up on the success of his convention by moving to take it. He can start explicitly appealing to this tradition and its representatives. On the stump, he could discuss FDR, who also ran for reelection in wartime. Bush could liken his task at the beginning of the war on terror to that of Harry Truman early in the Cold War (he might want to do this in the swing state of Missouri). Bush could quote John Kennedy. He could pay tribute to Scoop Jackson (say, in the swing state of Washington).

A minority party becomes a majority party by absorbing elements of the other party, changing them and itself. On taxes and crime and welfare, the GOP has won over much of FDR's working class, while adjusting its stance to the welfare state. On social and cultural issues, the GOP has won over God-fearing Democrats while modifying its cultural disposition. Now is the moment to complete the realignment by embracing a robust and bipartisan patriotism. And there is the advantage that Ronald Reagan (who had been a Democrat) has already shown the GOP how to do this--how to be an all-American party, as it were, proud of American principle and willing to use American power.