DEMOCRATS DON'T HAVE A DEATH wish. It just seems that way. What they actually have is a habit of falling into the national security trap. They did it in 1972. They did it in 1984. They did it in 1994. They did it in 2002. And they're doing it again this year as they prepare for the 2006 midterm elections, in which they hope to produce a breakthrough as sweeping and decisive as Republicans achieved in 1994.
The national security trap is simple. When faced with a choice between supporting or criticizing the use of military force along with a strong national security policy, Democrats often side with the critics. Which is how they fall into the trap, which leads to electoral defeat. When they back a vigorous defense of America's national security, however, the opposite happens. They usually win. Even when Democrats merely neutralize the national security issue--this happened in 1996 and 1998--or the issue is peripheral, they stand a good chance of winning.
At the moment, Democrats are convinced the country has turned against the war in Iraq. So House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is quite comfortable declaring the war a "grotesque mistake" and boasting that she has thought so from the start. Senator Edward Kennedy felt confident enough last week to inform American generals home from Iraq that the war is an "intractable quagmire." This prompted a sharp rebuke from General George Casey, the top commander in Iraq. "You have an insurgency with no vision, no base, limited popular support, an elected government, committed Iraqis to the democratic process, and you have Iraqi security forces that are fighting and dying for their country every day," Casey said. "Senator, that is not a quagmire."
Kennedy lost that exchange. And Democrats did no better on a related issue, the treatment of terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. Senate Democratic whip Dick Durbin was forced to apologize for likening the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to that of the Soviet gulag, Hitler's death camps, and the Cambodian killing fields. What was striking was the matter-of-fact manner in which Durbin drew the parallel in the first place. He seemed to be oblivious to the possibility he might be seen as worrying more about the detainees than about America's national security.
Democrats haven't learned the lesson on national security from elections over the past 30-plus years. In 1972, Democrats thought the public had turned strongly against the war in Vietnam. So they nominated a fervent antiwar candidate, George McGovern. He lost in a landslide to incumbent Richard Nixon. Granted, McGovern's stance on national security wasn't the only factor in his loss, but it played a part. In 1980, Ronald Reagan ousted Jimmy Carter at least partly because he took a tougher position toward the Soviet Union and Iran. Four years later, Democratic candidates spent the primaries arguing over who had endorsed the nuclear freeze first. Reagan won reelection easily.
In 1988, the elder George Bush won after Democrat Michael Dukakis undermined his own credibility as a potential commander in chief by riding in a tank wearing silly-looking headgear. But in 1992, things were different. Bill Clinton and Al Gore avoided the national security trap. Clinton was hawkish toward China (later he mellowed) and Gore had voted for the Gulf war as a senator in 1991. They won. In 1994, after Clinton had responded weakly in Somalia and Haiti, Republicans captured the Senate and the House. Clinton responded strongly in Bosnia in 1995 and won reelection in 1996 and Democrats picked up a few House seats in 1998. In 2000, national security was a secondary issue and Al Gore won the popular vote and Democrats gained 5 Senate seats.
In 2002, Democrats voted 11 times against the creation of a Homeland Security Department, insisting the wishes of federal employee unions be accommodated first. They were pilloried by Republicans, who gained congressional seats. Finally, in 2004, Democrats concluded a majority of voters were anti-Iraq. John Kerry acted accordingly, voting against funds to continue the war. And Democrats spent much of the year attacking Bush also over the conduct of the war on terror. They fell in the trap. Bush was reelected in large part because voters trusted him more than Kerry to keep the country secure.
Democrats are optimistic about the 2006 election and with some reason. The country is in a sour mood. The public may have grown tired of Bush. Democrats believe they can sell the idea Republicans are abusing their power in Congress. But Democrats can't win if they're caught in the national security trap. In an era in which America is threatened by terrorists, voters are unlikely to abandon a party that's muscular on national security for a party that isn't.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.