A Changing of the Guard
The Democratic Party is now the dominant foreign-policy party.
Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos for Slate.
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.
The conventions these past two weeks—and particularly the final speeches Thursday night—have cemented the fact that the Democratic party is now the party of national-security policy; not just a wise or thoughtful foreign and military policy, but any kind of thinking whatsoever about matters beyond the water’s edge.
For anyone who’s followed American politics the past 40 years, since the election between George McGovern and Richard Nixon, this is a staggering shift.
It was the Democrats who talked Thursday night of their president’s “backbone” and “courage,” of the clear message he sent—as Vice President Joe Biden put it when talking about the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound—that “if you attack innocent Americans, we will follow you to the ends of the world.” By contrast, Biden recalled, Republican challenger Mitt Romney once said that it wasn’t worth “moving heaven and earth, and spending billions of dollars, just to catch one person.”
More extraordinary still, it was the Democrats who saluted, mourned, and celebrated the “fallen angels” and “wounded warriors” of the U.S. military. Romney observed no such ritual, leaving Sen. John Kerry to note, in his speech Thursday night, never before had a wartime nominee for president, of either party, “failed to pay tribute to our troops overseas in his acceptance speech.”
Not even the Republican convention’s foreign-policy surrogate, Condoleezza Rice, said much about the veterans—or anything at all about the Iraq or Afghanistan war, even though she had been George W. Bush’s most trusted foreign policy adviser for all eight years of his presidency and had thus played a big role in starting those wars.
The clearest sign of the change in party dynamics was this: The Democrats feel so assured in their new role as guardians of national defense that they also talked openly about seeking peace, negotiating arms-reduction treaties with the Russians (which Romney opposes on the flimsiest of grounds), withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and shifting money that was once spent on fighting wars to revitalizing our own cities—as Obama put it, “to do some nation-building right here at home.”
Contrast this with the 2004 Democratic Convention, where Sen. Kerry, as the nominee, felt so desperate to prove his bona fides as a tough warrior—despite his very real record as a decorated Swift Boat officer in the Vietnam War—that he did not even mention (he felt it would be imprudent) his outspoken protest of the war as leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War when he returned from fighting.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.