What happened to the Democratic hawks?

Posted: Oct 01, 2002 12:00 AM
"Defend the Country, Not the Party," preaches the headline over Democratic House Speaker Dick Gephardt's New York Times op-ed urging "bipartisan consensus for the war on terrorism." Sounds like a sensible idea. Would that Gephardt might peddle it to some party members whose arteries throbbed publicly when George W. Bush took a swipe at Democrats who (so he said) place too low an estimate on national security. Why is it these war-peace fracases boil down so frequently to Democrats against Republicans or, more precisely, to "conservatives" against "liberals"? Gephardt complains -- as did Sen. Tom Daschle, more pettishly -- that "President Bush has decided to play politics with the safety and security of the American people." Rather a large charge, don't you think, Dick? Anyway, who started it all? Liberal Democrats for the most part, aided and abetted by the odd Republican like Sen. Chuck Hagel, began it by stolid reluctance or outright resistance. To what? To leaning on Iraq about illegal weapons and making civil service protections a secondary consideration in framing the homeland security department. These days, the impression comes naturally that half the Democrats in Congress represent Missouri: "Show me," they smirk. "Show me" is generally a fair challenge. Nobody should start a war without demonstrating what is at stake and what to do about it. One could reasonably suppose, from the tenor of liberal Democratic rhetoric, that, if Bush thought he could get by with it, he would send the rockets zooming off at midnight. Nothing Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld says quite convinces a certain kind of liberal (e.g., the kind who writes New York Times editorials) that there might be some urgency to eliminating an arsenal controlled by an anti-American nut case and maybe the nut case along with it. Why is it always the liberals who natter and niggle and back and fill over the prospective use of American force? It was not always thus. For years, the biggest internationalists were liberals. Conservatives did the backing and filling when it came to overseas intervention. They hated, and in 1952 ran against, Harry Truman's "police action" in Korea. The architect of the Great Society, Lyndon Johnson, committed U.S. troops in large numbers to Vietnam. It was not conservatives who wanted them there; all that conservatives wanted was victory. The great fruit basket turnover of the '60s -- when liberals became doves and conservatives transmuted to hawks -- goes on and on. Those of us who experienced dime Cokes and Steve McQueen will never see its end, though its effects will dissipate as we shuffle off to rest homes. The issue then was what kind of nation we were. Liberals, who used to urge the Americanization of the world, turned to castigating their country for racism, colonialism and environmental rape. It seemed we were not such good people after all; we were in fact very bad. To which conservatives, long skeptical about foreign entanglements, replied with ejaculations of disgust. It became a patriotic thing. If you loved America, you trusted America. Gephardt, Daschle & Co., protest that liberals love America, too. Well, fine. Could they explain in that case why liberal eyebrows shoot ceilingward at the notion of military force applied abroad? Why is it that liberal politicians and intellectuals seem sometimes to accord foreign monsters more credibility than they bestow on their own president (e.g., those liberals who, after Sept. 11, sought to understand how we had "brought this horror on ourselves!")? What the president's current critics on the left should note is that not all conservatives are gung-ho to smite the Iraqis. Many worry over the possible consequences, wishing the matter had never arisen. Such trust as they accord Bush they accord due to an innate presumption that presidents don't get us in foreign scrapes for no cause; they do so when no more suitable choice seems to exist. Like now? The time when liberals could be counted on to embrace that presumption grows as mythic as the dime Coke.