That dang Lieberman, or, how to keep Dean out of the tank

"You said that to say what" award for Sunday's debate goes to Joe Lieberman for his now-ubiquitous quip comparing our current situation with Saddam in custody and Osama bin Laden on the loose to our situation after World War II, with Hitler defeated and Joseph Stalin still in power. Gack. Did he actually say that? I know there are other more pressing issues here, but Lieberman really ought to be chastised for indulging in the kind of gross historical hyperbole that conservatives have played to such a hilt since 9/11. The scary thing is, if Bush had a little more leeway in the demonstrated threat department, you can bet he would be tossing around Saddam and Hitler interchangably. This is precisely the direction he is going, and Lieberman obviously can't stop himself from doing the man a favor. William Saletan has a funny rundown of the whole shebang here.

Also, obligatory link to James Traub's Dems and National Security piece from Sunday. No doubt an excellent piece, it provides a wonderfully concise explanation of the ghosts animating Democratic debate over the war. Sometimes, though, I wonder if Democrats worry about the national security issues a bit too much. Obviously, security and foreign policy are more important now than they have been for a long time, but the polls (and perhaps I'll look for the links tomorrow) that I've come across still put these issues way below the domestic items that have consistently trumped all other concerns on election day.

But the past two elections and September 11 have made us jittery about the conventional wisdom: Gore ended up not being president, despite an economy and federal budget that couldn't get much better, and when Democrats tried to bank on domestic items in 2002, they learned the hard way that September 11 was still fresh in people's minds (although, for the record, that defeat was not as decisive as its made out to be, and hysterical GOP propoganda about security and patriotism made those issues seem more decisive than they probably were). In any event, the current Democratic neuroses over how to position ourselves on national security is understandable. Nonetheless, I think there is a good chance that three shifts may become apparent as we get deeper into 2004:

(1) 3 years later, September 11 won't be so fresh in the minds of voters who don't live and breathe orange alerts, and the fresher and considerably more mixed foreign policy story, namely Iraq, won't have anywhere near the ability to get voters minds out of their pocketbooks;

(2) the general electorate may not be so quick to see the budget busting value in Iraq as a valiant humanitarian mission. Michael O'Hanlon has a nightmare, apparently, "in which Dean wins the nomination, conditions in Iraq improve modestly and in the course of a debate, President Bush says: ''Go to Iraq and see the mass graves. Have you been, Governor Dean?'' In this nightmare, Bush has been, and Dean hasn't. ''Saddam killed 300,000 people. He gassed many of these people. You mean I should have thought there were no chemical weapons in the hands of a guy who impeded our inspectors for 12 years and gassed his own people and the Iranians?''"

I know this sort of moral reckoning talk strikes a chord with a lot of people on the coasts who felt solidarity with Clinton's interventionist policies, but as I remember, he had a devil of a time selling that to everyone else. If Bush keeps talking about all the Iraqis he's saved, and Dean keeps talking about how the war-induced budget deficit is going to take away your Social Security, who wins?

(3) Finally, I think a lot of what passes for debate about foreign policy could be better characterized as which candidate has more appeal to male voters. A lot of the rhetoric about toughness and decisiveness has a lot less to do with security issues than it does with Al Gore losing the white male vote faster than you can say cableknit earth tone sweater. Dean obviously has his own considerable character issues to deal with, but macho cred is definitely one area where he can compete. In fact his polling among women is already considerably weaker than his polling among men. Surely that's also worrying in its own right, but it reveals an opportunity that Democrats mostly assume is out of reach. Now, starting a couple wars obviously gives Bush a lead no matter how you score the man points, but let's not assume that character issues are synonymous with the more involved debate about the merits of the war.


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