Politics in Post-War America

March 04, 1991

Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown says it was "not wrong" for his party members in Congress to oppose the use-of-force resolution regarding Iraq. (Democrats voted against it 45-10 in the Senate, 179-86 in the House.) Since it is his calling to pass political, not moral or theological judgments, we have to wonder if he has read the polls lately. According to a USA Today Poll taken last Thursday, George Bush's job approval rating was 91 percent. That is not a typo.

The success of a war policy implemented over the objections of the Democrats has emphasized, in a way that no amount of campaign rhetoric or slick television commercials could, one of the basic perceived differences between the two parties. The American people now equate military strength and the willingness to use it as the means of achieving national security; in 1980, 1984 and 1988 the Republican presidential nominees were much more outspoken on that idea than their Democratic opponents; by the fall of 1988, according to the Gallup Poll, voters regarded the Republican Party as "the party for peace" ("best able to avoid World War III") by a margin of 43-33 percent.

Mr. Brown says the end of the war will allow Democrats to face George Bush on domestic issues "and that's to the Democrats' advantage." John White, a former DNC chairman, predicts that Mr. Bush's job rating will drop precipitously "when the focus returns to the economy and domestic problems." Sen. Sam Nunn, best known as the somewhat-hawkish chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee till he led the fight against the use-of-force resolution, told a Democratic Leadership Conference forum that the nation faces "the most formidable agenda of unmet social and economic needs [since 1945]." He plans to emphasize that theme between now and a May DLC meeting in which the organization is expected to draw up a party platform proposal for 1992.

Given the public's suspicion of today's Democratic Party on national security issues, the DLC and other elements in the party have little choice but to emphasize the domestic agenda. But we are not so sure that's "to the Democrats' advantage." In 1988 Gallup found that voters regarded the Republicans as "the party for prosperity" by a margin of 52-34 percent. That's a larger margin than in the answers to the "party for peace" question. Last fall the margin was much narrower, but even then, at the beginning of a recession, Republicans were still perceived as "the party for prosperity."

The DLC and the DNC are right that the Democratic Party has to stress a domestic agenda. But not the old one, obviously. That one helped take them to defeat in 1988 and, probably, 1984 and 1980. The Democratic agenda needs to have different, competitive economic and social ideas if 1992's presidential election is to have any purpose or meaning. Or suspense.

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