Monday, April 03, 2006

Plans are Great But Where's the Vision?

In discussing the Democrats’ new national security plan released last week, Fred Hiatt of The Washington Post makes the observation that the document, and the Democrats in general, have no grand vision to offer us.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore, by the time they left office, had formed a view. The United States was the "indispensable nation," as Clinton said, that should lead international coalitions to combat transnational threats: not only failed states and terror but also genocide and ethnic cleansing, AIDS, human trafficking, climate change, and more.

The Democrats, led by Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), seem to have reverted to the it's-the-economy-stupid Clinton of 1992. A section of their plan focuses on alternative energy and conservation, for example, but the goal is only "to free America from dependence on foreign oil"; climate change isn't mentioned. Pandemics such as avian flu are to be combated by spending more on public health at home; the rest of the world doesn't figure in.

Throughout the plan, in fact, there is no discussion of values, of liberty or generosity, of free markets or foreign aid -- of any purpose for American leadership larger than self-protection. The pollsters may be satisfied, but John F. Kennedy would not recognize his party.

Let’s be fair. Senators and representatives aren’t known for offering a grand vision of the world. They win and lose elections by offering policies that either appeal or don’t appeal to their constituents. As such, it is no surprise that the Democrats’ national security plan is long on particular policies and short on visionary rhetoric.

And of course the plan is focused on domestic security issues. Congress is, after all, only moderately influential in the setting of foreign policy. The institution is most geared to address domestic concerns and it is the local fears and hopes of each congressperson’s home district that matters come election time.

But Hiatt’s point is still valid, even if he is far too overcritical of this one document. Leaving domestic concerns aside, the Democrats lack a coherent worldview that is easily referenced and understood. This is a failing of both circumstance and leadership that took a firm hold, I believe, during John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Kerry, for all his accurate critiques of the Bush administration, never managed to present a competing worldview—specifically a worldview that adequately addressed the radical Islamist threat.

We understood that Kerry would handle the post-9/11 world differently than Bush, but we never got a sense of how he’d tackle the new problems. Yes, had plans aplenty but attached to what vision? That the Islamic terrorist threat was a minor problem needing targeted solutions? That the Islamic terrorist threat was a major problem needing major solutions different from those Bush was employing? We never really knew because while Kerry seemed to generally agree that the world had changed, he seemed unable to decide exactly what those changes required of us.

Kerry’s failure of vision persists within the party because it is a party’s presidential candidates and not its Congressional leaders who define a party’s worldview. So while it’s not of great importance that the national security plan lacks vision, it is important that the party as a whole has yet to reconcile how we need to view the radical Islamist threat. Through a different kind of confrontation? Through appeasement? Through something else?

I suspect that the party will continue forward in this visionless state until a new presidential candidate is nominated. Hopefully he or she will be able to articulate a coherent worldview.

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