The Obama victory shouldn’t surprise anybody - most of all the “Reagan Republicans and Democrats” among us. Nevertheless, it’s instructive to examine how it all happened.
The short answer is that - especially with the recent economic downturn - the foreign policy failures of the past several years made it inevitable that the Democrats would win big this year, no matter whom they ran. As it turned out, we elected for our president a decent person from the far left, but someone who has never had a “real job.” Well, times are tough for everybody, so let’s hope he continues to be lucky for all of us.
Now, for the policy post-mortem:
Don’t forget that - before the Wall Street meltdown - it was clear that had the Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton, they would probably win. This because of the proven Clinton technique of “triangulation” - moving to the center - just like Bill Clinton did.
However (and again assuming no meltdown) a Hillary Clinton presidency would have been yet another unremarkable link in a probable 28-year-long Bush-Clinton and Bush-Clinton dynasty of relatively indistinguishable national security policies. I have written here before, for example, that with the exception of Iraq and the ABM Treaty, there has been little difference in the national security and foreign policies between the Bushes and the Clintons. And, that the last “wide mark in the road” for real enlightened national security and foreign policy was the Reagan administration. That remains the case.
But, rather than nominate Hillary Clinton, the Democrats seemingly did the Republicans a favor and lurched their party to the Left. And - lest we forget it - just after Mr. Obama was nominated it looked like Republicans might win because of it.
Even the Clintons had warned Democrats about this aspect of an Obama nomination. Then, it seemed that all the Republicans needed to do was characterize Mr. Obama as a super liberal and energize the Clinton Democrats. All of which could have been be done by Mr. McCain, who was definitely not a social conservative, had a solid track record for fiscal conservatism and working with Democrats on a number of “good government” issues. And, of course, there was also the anachronistically volatile Rev. Jeremiah Wright, ‘60s radical William Ayers (and even Michelle Obama with her startling “for the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud of my country” remark), all ripe for exploitation by the Republicans. But they didn’t - perhaps couldn’t or wouldn’t - do it.
In the end - and certainly together with the financial meltdown - it was clearly the failure of the national security and foreign policies of the George W. Bush (Bush 43) administration that handed the election to the Democrats.
How could this have happened?
For years, it was argued that the Republican “long suit” was foreign policy and national security - and that they brought in “better people” than did the Democrats to fill the various national security jobs - at the departments of Defense and State, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council. While this proposition was probably true through the Reagan administration, it eroded during George H.W. Bush’s (Bush 41) administration and fell apart during George W. Bush’s administration (Bush 43).
Iraq was the resulting Republican national security policy anomaly, and one that has turned into a bad dream. Our manpower-intensive mission in Iraq should have been over quickly.
Destroy the WMD infrastructure; secure and selectively destroy weapon storage areas; take out Saddam Hussein, his sons and the rest of the senior Ba’ath party leadership; keep the Iraqi army mostly intact, but with new and vetted leadership - primarily to offset radicals in Iraq and Iran; and, leave a few strategically located coalition bases in-country and -region with enough forces to prevent outside interference and local uprisings from getting out of control. Then, get the manpower-intensive part of the U.S. mission in Iraq the heck out of there!
Yet another way to look at it: Assuming we went in to remove Saddam, there was never a persuasive explanation given that the mission had changed and that we now needed to establish a democracy in Iraq. While the president gave a few thoughtful speeches on the subject, there was a massive failure of public diplomacy from the White House to get the “democracy” message across. Accordingly, most Americans were never sold - and are still not sold - on the “democracy” mission in Iraq.
The Iraqis don’t appear to be sold on it either, nor do most leaders of “democracies” in the Middle East. This is because what exists in Egypt, Turkey or Jordan is as good as it gets for democrats in the Middle East, and to even start toward something like that in Iraq would be a miracle. This was the best we could have hoped for under the circumstances; and, we might still be able to salvage some of it as we disengage.
Nevertheless, it takes no advantage of hindsight to conclude that our painfully protracted involvement in Iraq has been a colossal waste of our time, money and national prestige - but most seriously, a very sad and costly sacrifice of our brave American fighting men and women.
The Wall Street meltdown?
Sure, it was what sealed the fate of the Republican candidates, but even without it the Democratic candidate was a sure thing. While Hillary Clinton may have made it easier for a lot of Democrats to vote for their candidate, the irony was that it would have also continued an unfortunate dynasty of largely failed national security policies that began with Bush 41.
We have another irony: A young liberal president who is a product of the age of self-entitlement, but who now must build a working consensus in a country that remains largely conservative in its core beliefs.
Can he do it? Fortunately, that’s not the relevant question - he has no choice, but neither do we. We need to help him get the job done.
Daniel Gallington is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va.