Ticket to Oblivion

As War Looms, Can a Young Democrat Save His Party from Itself?


The president put it bluntly. "The hard fact is that so long as Saddam remains in power, he threatens the well-being of his people, the peace of his region, the security of the world," he said. "The credible threat to use force, and when necessary the actual use of force, is the surest way to contain Saddam's weapons of mass destruction program [and] curtail his aggression."

The president who spoke those words was Bill Clinton, in 1998.

In 1999, a young man named Timothy Bergreen went to work in Clinton's State Department. He had previously worked for Democrats on Capitol Hill, taken advanced degrees in law and political science, and practiced law in Palo Alto, Calif. His abiding passion, however, was for issues of national security. He was also a fiercely loyal Democrat—the kind, he says, who puts up lawn signs.

Today, just on the cusp of 40, Bergreen would blend into a crowd on any of three or four continents. His height is average, his build slender, his hair and eyes generic brown, his features aquiline. A crinkly smile punctuates his conversation.

The smile, however, masks a sense of mission. He watches, dismayed, as Democrats waltz merrily toward an abyss. The public perceives Democrats as less capable and trustworthy than Republicans on national security. That's the bad news. The worse news is that the perception is grounded in reality. Not many prominent Democrats could comfortably and credibly say the things that Bill Clinton said about Iraq in 1998.

A lot of Democrats seem to regard foreign-policy and national security issues as distractions that, with luck, will soon go away. On Iraq, the party snapped back—with whiplash speed, seemingly as if Clinton had never happened—to the pacifism and confusion of the McGovern and Mondale years. That makes Democrats not only wrong but, in national races, unelectable.

"We have reached the point where this has metastasized into a crisis in the party," says Bergreen. "What I would like is to have a Democrat be comfortable reading the words that were in John F. Kennedy's inaugural. Have you read that recently? That's tough stuff. That liberty and freedom are something worth fighting for, worth bearing a burden for. Just because there's no Soviet Union doesn't make these things less relevant."

And so Bergreen is pounding the pavements of Washington, looking for money and support for a new organization, to be called Democrats for National Security. "The problem," says Doug Wilson, a former Clinton Pentagon official who counts himself among Bergreen's supporters, "is to be able to say 'Democrats for national security' and not have people think it's an oxymoron."

Michael McCurry, a former Clinton press secretary, is another supporter. "This whole effort is absolutely critical," he says. "I think there's a fundamental threshold that a Democratic presidential candidate is going to have to cross to demonstrate that they know how to deal with the dangerous world we live in. Unless the Democrats get a very clear, strong and robust message together on issues of force projection and security, there will be no ears to hear any other message about domestic and social policy."

Bergreen models his effort loosely on the Democratic Leadership Council and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute. In the 1980s, they established a rallying point for centrist and conservative Democrats. The DLC, however, focused more on domestic issues, and so did the public, thanks to the Cold War's end. "There was a sense, if only a fleeting one, that national security didn't matter as much any more," says Bergreen. "People were comfortable enough with where Clinton came down, and they had a sense of security based on the demise of the Soviet Union. But I look upon Clinton's election in 1992 as more of an aberration than the beginning of a new era."

Then came Sept. 11, 2001. Security issues, says Bergreen, "all of a sudden became completely front and center in a way that they had not been since the Cold War, and maybe since the Second World War." Democrats were unprepared. "In many ways," Bergreen says, "the Democrats are boxed out of the game."

Their confinement, he argues, has two dimensions. "I get this sense in everything I read and hear from Democrats that you can't do anything except multilaterally—that multilateralism is a precondition for action. I think what that says to the electorate in general is that there is an unwillingness on the part of the Democrats to lead on these issues—on protecting core national security values of the United States, especially in a post-Sept. 11 world." Multilateralism, Bergreen emphasizes, is desirable but must not be mandatory. "Multilateralism is not an end. It's a means to an end."

Second, Democrats' core partisans tend to be anti-military (at least, anti-U.S.-military). "I think they have a real apprehension about the military, both as an institution and as an instrument of statecraft." True, military force should be "very close to being the absolutely last resort," Bergreen says, using a locution that seems itself less than confident. Still, he emphasizes the traditions of FDR, Truman, and Kennedy—all Democrats, all comfortable with force. "The world would be a vastly different and much more unpleasant place if not for the American military."

Bergreen's father was a World War II veteran. As a boy, young Tim discovered and devoured stacks of old Life and Time magazines from the 1930s and '40s. "While the people a little older than I was were all going through Vietnam, I was in a way living through the 1930s and 1940s. So I never went through this sense that the military and using force was a bad thing."

Many of Bergreen's supporters, similarly, are young Clintonistas formed not by the Vietnam War but by the Persian Gulf War. To them, Hill Democrats' harping on "the horrors of war" seems a bit odd. The horrors of the Gulf War? Of the Kosovo war? Of the Afghan war?

Terry Szuplat is a 29-year-old who worked as a speechwriter in Clinton's Pentagon. "Every military engagement that I've lived through has been short, has been relatively unbloody compared to Vietnam. That has to have an impact," he says. "This is the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy and Truman, strong leaders on national defense. And look where our party is today. It's tragic."

Or take Steven J. Naplan, a 32-year-old veteran of Clinton's National Security Council staff. Clinton's message, he thinks, got it right: "Use force with others when possible, but alone if we must." But Democrats have abandoned that posture for something more like, "Only with others, never alone." Naplan says, "We need to invest just as much energy in expressing our determination to protect the American people, and that the projection of American power can be a very good thing in the world, as we do in advocating a multilateral path to that end."

Instead, Democratic members of Congress travel to Baghdad and, from Iraqi soil, criticize the Bush administration. What happens to them? Nothing. "What the Republicans did to Trent Lott was at a _minimum_ what the Democrats should have done to the Baghdad Two," says Bergreen, referring to Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and former Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich. Then, even after voting to give President Bush authority to make war, Democrats hem and haw, seek to change the subject to domestic issues, and try last-minute stalling actions.

"Democrats who voted for Bush to be authorized to use force need to stand up and be counted a little more on this, and talk to the rank and file about why this is important, and I'm not hearing much of that," Bergreen says. "What I'm hearing is a lot of positioning. The hemming and hawing and hand-wringing and calls for more time—they're a day late and a dollar short. And Democrats who make those arguments at this point are wounding the party politically."

But what about Democratic primary voters? About 60 percent of core Democratic partisans—versus about 30 percent of all likely voters—tell pollsters that Bush is focusing on Iraq to seize oil, avenge his father and distract attention from a stricken economy. "I'm looking for somebody to stop this war," an Iowa Democrat named Enid told The American Prospect at a candidate forum in January. Aren't hawkish Democrats doomed in primaries dominated by Enids?

Soon, replies Bergreen, America will go to war with Iraq. The war will be quick, and the Americans will be greeted as liberators, and the full truth about the Iraqi regime will come out. The prestige of forceful Democrats will go up—sharply. Even many leftist Democrats may come to see that McGovernism is a ticket to oblivion.

"Sometime in the spring of 2003, I'm going to be proved right," says Bergreen. "And this thing's going to take off."