The New/Old Democrats

Posted: May 07, 2003 12:00 AM

Say what? You didn’t know the Democratic presidential candidates debated on TV Saturday night in Columbia, S.C.? Neither, apparently, did most Americans. The debate was Page 22 in The New York Times. Across the top, the headline: "Democrats’ First Presidential Debate Shows Party Fissures."

And how! The nine candidates -- or was it 29? -- nattered and niggled over health care, Bush tax cuts and Iraq. Perhaps especially the latter.

Sen. Joe Lieberman got into it with Sen. John Kerry over his rival’s supposed "ambivalence" concerning the war. Not that ambivalence -- from Lieberman’s standpoint -- wasn’t better than the toasty-hot opposition for which Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont and several other candidates will be asked to answer.

Lieberman, for his part, felt called to wonder how Americans were likely to judge "our party’s willingness to make the tough decisions to protect their security in a world after Sept. 11."

Well might he wonder, because to all appearances the rock-bottom foreign-policy stance for numerous influential Democrats remains"Hey, Hey, LBJ! How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?"

Vietnam, for Democrats aged, say, 45 to 65, is the definitional issue, just as it was the definitional issue 30 years ago. Around it spun -- and still spins -- everything else.

The war ended, supposedly, three decades ago. In fact, it never ended. On it goes, the people of the streets -- ours, not Saigon’s -- waging endless battle against the evil military-industrial complex and our imputed lust to turn foreign people into red-blooded Americans.

The boys and girls of the streets, a little less luminescent now (more hygienic, though, in general) just can’t let go. What they don’t want to believe -- because it contradicts so sternly and forcefully what they believed in 1968 -- is that you can’t trust the United States.

The outcome, thus far, of the Iraq intervention points us in a different direction. Why, yes, after all, you can trust the United States to do battle for the lives and liberties of the oppressed. Just look at Iraq.

The admission comes hard for the ex-people of the streets -- the protesters, the draft-card burners and so on. One of these was John Kerry: now a presidential candidate, then a leading light in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. A few of us old plugs well remember the media stir -- 1971, wasn’t it? -- that attended Kerry’s protest on Capitol Hill, when it was believed, inaccurately, that he had destroyed his medals.

Generally, the people of the streets gravitated to the Democratic Party -- over which, by virtue of age and earning power, they continue to exercise inordinate influence. A "willingness to make tough decisions" -- back to Joe Lieberman -- isn’t a large part of the party’s repertoire.

Stop snickering, Richard Perle.

A virtue of old-plugdom is the ability to remember not just when John Kerry was aligned with Jane Fonda and Ramsey Clark but when Perle, now a key Bush counselor on foreign policy, was aligned with the Democrats: specifically with Sen. Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson, the anti-communist hawk on whose staff he served. Neither Jackson nor Perle had the least use for the commies: never wanted other than to put them out of business.

It turned out that Republicans got along with these two Democrats better than their fellow Democrats did. Democrats rebuffed Jackson’s presidential candidacy. Perle, looking for foreign-policy hard-liners to serve, found Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. A different kind of Democratic Party could have hung onto him, but -- well, that’s another story.

Sen. Kerry and Gov. Dean will likely work hard at convincing us they can make the tough post-Sept. 11 decisions. They have some convincing to do. The latest Washington Post-ABC poll has the present commander in chief showing his heels to the whole Democratic field, starting with Lieberman, Kerry and Dick Gephardt, the ex-House minority leader. In politics, things can turn around quickly. And some things don’t turn at all, even after 30 years.