By Daniel Henninger
The Wall Street Journal
Want to know how to really scare a Democratic candidate for Congress on Halloween? Forget the Sarah Palin mask. Don’t say “Boo!” Just slip up behind them and whisper, “national security.” They’ll jump from here into next week’s election.
In New Hampshire, North Carolina, Arkansas, Iowa and Colorado, Republican challengers are spooking Democratic Senate campaigns by yelling, “Islamic State” and “Ebola.”
A Scott Brown ad in New Hampshire says Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen “supports Obama ’s failed foreign policy.” Tom Cotton ’s ad in Arkansas says President Obama “underestimated” the threat in the Middle East. In their Colorado debate, Republican Cory Gardner asked Sen. Mark Udall “where were you” while Islamic State became a “growing threat?” Most horrifying of all, Thom Tillis accused North Carolina Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan of skipping an Armed Services Committee hearing to . . . raise money.
Democratic campaigns built around the war on women or the future of outdoor temperatures are looking limp.
If I were a Democrat getting beaten up by Republican appeals to national security, it would madden me that earlier this year most GOP politicians were content to minimize the world’s troubles, citing—well, hiding behind—opinion polls purporting that most Americans were “fatigued” with the U.S. role in the world.
“Fatigue” became the default argument for ending discussion in conservative and GOP circles about offering an alternative to Barack Obama’s hook-and-slice foreign policy toward Syria, Iran, Iraq, Vladimir Putin ’s spreading empire, China intimidations of its neighbors or any other metastasizing global threat.
All of a sudden, Republicans everywhere are using a dented globe to pummel Democrats. Politics can be so unfair.
Privately, Democrats complain that their candidates are getting tagged for Barack Obama’s incompetence. Mark Udall didn’t have access to intelligence reports about Islamic State’s spread through the Middle East. Why blame Kay Hagan for letting the Ukrainians twist in the wind? What’s Arkansas got to do with any of this?
These Democrats are whistling past the graveyard if they think they can deny shared responsibility for the world on Barack Obama’s watch. The Obama worldview is their worldview—not because he happens to be president but because his is the foreign policy espoused by the Democratic Party’s leaders for a generation. One is vice president. Another is secretary of state.
After the Vietnam War, Democrats came to be known as the antiwar party. The real meaning of that phrase is misunderstood.
Democrats moved away from the muscular foreign-policy tradition of Roosevelt and Trumanonly partly for reasons of aversion to overseas military deployments. What they really wanted to redeploy, permanently, was the federal budget’s spending accounts: Siphon money out of the defense budget and reflow it into domestic spending. Forever.
Liberals loathed Ronald Reagan above all else because he took defense spending up to 6% of GDP. That it was 9% under John F. Kennedy has been swept under the rug of Party history. By notable contrast, Bill Clinton is revered by post-Kennedy Democrats because he reduced defense outlays eight straight years, ending at 3% of GDP. Under the Bush 9/11 presidency, defense rose above 4%. President Obama’s defense-spending plans would reduce it to 2.3% of GDP by 2024.
The bucolic view of this is that Democrats merely want to help people by spending money on unmet domestic needs. The cynical view would be that once an inexorably northern liberal Democratic Party lost the South, defense spending did nothing for them politically. Domestic spending underwrites their bases of power and incumbencies in the North.
That cynical spending calculation holds for some Republicans in Congress. The difference is that only Democrats stay away from the world as a matter of ideology, for fear any commitment legitimizes dollars for defense.
But bargain-basement foreign policy is high risk, especially if you’re standing for election in front of the famous fan. As now.
If the Republican Party wins Senate control next Tuesday, it will be the dog that caught the bus. Then what? My guess is that much of the campaign’s national-security bravado will recede. Most Republicans will re-convince themselves that opinion-poll “fatigue” is real. Like the Obama foreign policy, that thought is delusional.
Ebola is the wake-up call. Ebola was a problem over there, and addressing it could wait. Now it’s here. Ebola shrank the world. That is a reality from which it’s impossible to hide anymore.
You can’t watch individuals infected with Ebola show up in Texas and New York from West Africa and demand that the U.S. do something, and then watch Islamic State rampage across the Middle East and say, not our problem. Internet jihadist recruitment and paint-by-numbers terrorism manuals by Islamic State and al Qaeda have shrunk the world, too.
Foreign-policy planners and national leaders in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing get up every day and do one thing: think about how they can diminish or destabilize the U.S. Our leadership got up every day for six years and thought about . . . wind farms. When the world’s political winds shifted, Senate Democrats, as is their habit, chose not to see.
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