The Washington Times

New Republic editor Peter Beinart has written an essay that is causing a stir among Democrats busy rethinking policy and political strategy. In “A Fighting Faith” in the Dec. 13 edition, he argues that Democrats need to reclaim for liberalism the tough-mindedness on foreign affairs that characterized the emergence of liberal anti-communism in the late 1940s and ’50s. Without a clear sense of purpose and message in defense of America updated for the age of mass terror and “totalitarian Islam,” Democrats will find their electoral appeal foundering for lack of “moral purpose.”

One must be wary of overstatement: To some extent, there is always an intraparty debate. During election season, the factions usually are able to iron out their differences sufficiently to present a united front. After a defeat, each faction tends to blame its own compromises with the opposing faction. The hawks lament their compromises with the dovish, the dovish their willingness to be led in a hawkish direction – and this across the full range of policy, not just foreign affairs and peace and war. The defeat of John Kerry has thus provoked the claim from the left of the party that Mr. Kerry was insufficiently outspoken against the war in Iraq and in favor of American withdrawal, as well as the claim from the party’s center that Mr. Kerry’s position was too confused to convey the tough-mindedness they favored.

Still, Mr. Beinart is right that the party’s recent experience cannot be subsumed under this ordinary political give-and-take. He writes, “Today, three years after September 11 brought the United States face-to-face with a new totalitarian threat, liberalism has still not ‘been fundamentally reshaped’ [as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in the case of the liberal response to Soviet communism in the late 1940s] by the experience. On the right, a ‘historical re-education’ has indeed occurred. … But American liberalism, as defined by its activist organizations, remains largely what it was in the 1990s – a collection of domestic interests and concerns.”

Mr. Beinart is especially scathing on the two most salient new players in the Democratic discussion: Michael Moore and MoveOn. “Today, most liberals naively consider Mr. Moore a useful ally, a bomb-thrower against a right-wing that deserves to be torched. What they do not understand is that his real casualties are on the decent left. … And, while MoveOn’s frequent bulletins are far more thoughtful than Mr. Moore’s rants, they convey the same basic hostility to U.S. power.” Together, they hark back to the “softs” – the leftists of the 1940s who perceived a greater danger to the world from American power than from Soviet communism, and whom honorable liberals of the day felt a moral obligation to take on and defeat for influence in the Democratic Party.

I like Mr. Beinart’s analogy and his fighting spirit. His essay gets to essential questions, as in his blunt assessment of what he calls “the Kerry compromise”: “Because [Mr. Kerry] never urged a national mobilization for safety and freedom, his discussion of terrorism lacked Mr. Bush’s grandeur. That wasn’t an accident. Had Mr. Kerry aggressively championed a national mobilization to win the war on terrorism, he wouldn’t have been the Democratic nominee.”

It would be slightly cheap to say that what Mr. Beinart is really calling for is a rebirth of neoconservatism within the Democratic Party. But it would not be cheap to say that he is recalling liberalism to its classical roots as a political viewpoint prepared to defend its claims about how to organize a decent society against all comers, intellectually and by force when necessary.

But to what effect? Of course, it is manifestly important that Democrats who aspire to positions overseeing national security policy in future Democratic administrations eschew the views of Mr. Moore and MoveOn. But this, as Mr. Beinart notes, they already do. Those in Washington and out who at times sound like Mr. Moore when they spout on foreign policy are way out of sync with the party establishment. MoveOn et al. aren’t so much participating in a debate over national security as engaging in a form of literary politics. They spell out their vision of the good for the purpose of their own gratification in sharing it. God forbid anyone making policy should listen.

Nor, really, does Mr. Beinart’s analogy offer much in the way of electoral hope. The “softs” may have lost – or may not. Mr. Beinart’s discussion ends before the party’s activists turned against the Vietnam war, a position that reverberates within the party today at least as much as the initial defeat of the “softs.” The left wing of the Democratic Party looks to be a permanent presence, including its hostility to American power. When the issue of American power is front and center, it will likely be no easier for Democrats to win the White House than it was during the Cold War.

But in the end, political efficacy is not the point. The question is what’s right. And on that score, win or lose, Mr. Beinart is right.