Democrats Are Blowing Their First Chance at Recovery

Andrew E. Busch

December 1, 2004

Much ink was spilled after November 2 analyzing the vote and offering advice to Democrats on how to regain their footing in national politics. Two pieces of advice achieved the status of a near-consensus. Learn how to address moral values issues with at least some sympathy for the concerns of those Americans who are not enamored of gay marriage, abortion-on-demand, and postmodernist relativism. Find a way to get serious about national security.

Because the problems of the Democratic Party in these two areas have been a long time in the making—1972 might be a good starting point—the remedy will not be found overnight, nor executed in a single stroke. The impressions that accumulated over the last three decades or more can only be mitigated by a gradual accumulation of contrary impressions. Furthermore, Democrats cannot just mouth the right words; they must have some "Sister Souljah moments" to prove their independence from pernicious influences. (Bill Clinton invented the "Sister Souljah moment" in 1992 when he publicly criticized the black rap star for racial hatred, in front of a shocked Jesse Jackson.) They can ill afford to waste any opportunity that presents itself.

They are on the verge of wasting their first such opportunity.

A particularly damaging picture of John Kerry during the 2004 campaign was the one of Kerry (and Democrats) as obsessed with satisfying international organizations at the expense of the national interest. Kerry and his supporters often attacked Bush’s "unilateralism," which was an odd term for a policy that operated with 30 allies in Iraq and 40 in Afghanistan. What Kerry really meant was not that Bush acted alone, but that he acted without permission from multilateral organizations like the United Nations. Bush hit Kerry hard, and with considerable effect, when the challenger suggested that the U.S. should not take action against its enemies unless such action first passed a "global test." Americans will not tolerate a president who would beg the likes of Jacques Chirac for the right to defend them.

Into this picture strides Kofi Annan, Secretary General of a United Nations that is sinking in a combination of corruption and ineptitude. The evidence mounts that the Oil for Food program with Iraq was riddled with corruption reaching into several European governments and up to fairly high levels of the U.N. itself. Annan oversaw the mess on his tenure, and has taken steps to stonewall and obstruct investigators. In response, a number of congressional Republicans have called on Annan to resign his post, as the only honorable thing to do under the circumstances.

If the Democrats were to take hold of this issue and forcefully demand Annan’s resignation, too, they could erase at least a bit of the impression left by Kerry. It could be a first step—a small one, to be sure—toward reassuring American voters that Democrats will cross the U.N. when the U.N. crosses America. (Incidentally, from a policy standpoint, multilateralist Democrats should also recognize that until the U.N. is seriously reformed, Americans will not cede more influence to that institution.)

Yet, with the stage set perfectly for such a public display of independence, Democrats cannot yet bring themselves to act. On the contrary, their first instinct has thus far been to defend Annan and the United Nations itself with the kind of religious zeal that one might expect from the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt. Dennis Kucinich made a strong statement supporting Annan, as did John Conyers and others. If the U.N. is under attack, it must be protected! If Republicans are leading the charge, then Democrats must lead the defense!

So far, the pro-Annan activists have represented the far left wing of the Democratic Party, but the silence by the more mainstream elements of the party is nearly as damaging to Democrats as the gushing of its fringe. Indeed, the silence is functionally equivalent to the gushing, since the silence creates a vacuum which magnifies the sound of the gushing. Until Democrats of stature have something more to say, the Dennis Kucinich/John Conyers wing is the sole public face of their party on this issue. And Democrats think it is damaging to allow themselves to be defined by Republicans.

Perhaps a movement will emerge among Democrats to join the call for Kofi Annan’s ouster. Perhaps Democrats will ultimately take advantage of the opportunity to show that, while they want the U.N. to play a larger role in American foreign policy, they are not in thrall to it like teenie-boppers following around the captain of the varsity football team. Until they do, they will have muffed a chance to begin the long climb back to where Americans will trust them with the safety of their country in a dangerous world.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.