Tough Enough?

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For more than three decades, liberals have carried the reputation of being not just anti-war, but anti-military and anti-soldier. It’s a reputation that conservatives, particularly right-wing pundits and Republican political planners, have happily reinforced. Each election season, they hammer the message home: Democrats are weak on defense issues, weak on foreign policy, weak on military planning.

But with two former military heroes fighting for the Democratic presidential nod, and with Democratic leaders in Congress taking daily shots at the Bush administration for its shoddy planning in Iraq, the reputation is being stretched very thin — probably far too thin for Karl Rove’s tastes.

The political shine given off by Sen. John Kerry’s Vietnam-era military honors may have dimmed slightly since former general Wesley Clark entered the presidential race, but Kerry knows his war hero status is still a selling point. Last week, when the Democratic presidential hopefuls gathered in Arizona, Kerry wasted no time in reminding the audience about his real-world martial experience (so very different from George W. Bush’s unheroic and truncated military career). What’s more, Kerry deftly suggested that the military’s rank-and-file are natural Democrats.

“I came back here to a country where I saw a whole bunch of people who’d served in Vietnam discriminated against, a lot of them from Arizona, a lot of them from New Mexico, South California, because Latinos and African-Americans I saw were drafted and on the front lines in far greater numbers than my friends from Yale or other people.”

Now, whom could Kerry be referring to? Who was it that went to Yale, and not to Vietnam? Oh, yes, that brave airman who sat out the war in Southeast Asia while serving (or not, as the case may be) in the Air National Guard in his home state of Texas.

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill aren’t being nearly so subtle. While Democrats aren’t about to actually reject the president’s request for $87 billion to keep the Iraqi occupation afloat, they have used the surrounding debate to flog the White House for wagering the well-being of American troops in an ill-planned and overtly political operation. In particular, Congressmen David Obey of Wisconsin and John Murtha of Pennsylvania have used the request to, as The Washington Post reports, to denounce “the ‘cadre of political scientists,’ naive ‘romantics’ and ‘self-appointed geniuses’ who sent U.S. troops to war without enough body armor, canteens and portable jammers to defuse radio-controlled bombs, then came to Congress with a ‘lavish’ reconstruction request that still short-changed the troops.”

But can liberals in particular, and Democrats in general, really hope to shake their ‘soft’ reputation? Michael Kinsley observes on Slate that the challenge facing liberals is particularly thorny because it is grounded in a falsehood — the “myth” that liberals “disdain people in uniform.”

“Even during Vietnam, concern for the loss of young American lives was probably the anti-war movement’s most powerful motivation. Since then [Vietnam], sneery right-wingers have had it both ways about liberals and the military: When liberals oppose military action, conservative voices accuse them of betraying our fighting men and women. When liberals support military action, they are accused of callous indifference to the lives of American soldiers.”

Sneering or otherwise, conservatives aren’t about to concede that liberals might not be the military-haters of partisan fable. Right wing pundits, while defending the administration’s handling of all things Iraqi, belittle Kerry and Clark with equal vigor, questioning the latter’s military record and the former’s political honesty. James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal, never one to pass an opportunity to demean a Democrat or bad-mouth the French, manages to do both in disparaging Kerry’s loaded reminiscence.

“John Kerry, the haughty, French-looking Massachusetts Democrat, who by the way served in Vietnam, managed to cite his Vietnam service in the course of a rare quintuple pander (to two ethnic groups and three states).”

In besmirching Clark, meanwhile, David Keene puts a new twist on the ‘liberals hate the military’ claim, suggesting in The Hill that no general who appeals to liberals can be much of a commander. Clark, Keene opines, looks to him like “Howard Dean in a military uniform.”

“So liberal Democrats have finally found a general they can love. Retired NATO Commander Wesley Clark has much to recommend him. He looks good in uniform, has actually fought in some of the wars most of them opposed and yet agrees with them on just about everything.”

Such attacks are to be expected from the Republican side of the trench. The ‘strong-on-the-military’ ground is too valuable, particularly when the only top administration official with notable military bona fides is widely regarded as far more dovish than his ‘chicken hawk’ civilian colleagues. But conservatives aren’t alone in actively reinforcing the reputation that liberals are anti-military. Progressive pundits, including Sean Gonsalves of The Cape Cod Times, are questioning Clark’s fitness. They have criticized Clark’s actions as Supreme Allied Commander in the Balkans — specifically his justification of a NATO attack on Belgrade TV stations — and have raised doubts about his reputation among other officers and enlisted men.

“And we haven’t even scratched the surface in discussing Clark’s idealization of the Powell Doctrine, which led to NATO forces dropping tons of depleted uranium bombs on Kosovo, creating widespread civilian sickness as a result of contamination associated with DU.”

While eschewing such pointed attacks, Kinsley also worries that Democrats may be guilty of swooning over Clark’s military élan without considering his electibility.

“Wes Clark has a genuine following, especially among younger folks (although there is a rebellion over something-or-other going on this week among Clark’s Internet enthusiasts). In a properly functioning democracy — which ours is, barely — everyone is entitled to one youthful political swoon over a candidate who seems to be bucking the system. Mine was for John Anderson in 1980. Others have swooned over Ross Perot or John McCain or Lee Iacocca. The rules entitle the swooner to project his or her views onto the candidate, despite any lack of evidence or even evidence of the opposite. But the rules also insist that the candidate will never win.”

So, are such concerns enough to push Clark off the Democratic stage? Writing in the Miami Herald, Joy-Ann Reid says they aren’t, and worries that Gonsalves and other progressives are exhibiting the very mindset Republicans accuse them of harboring — “a reflexive suspicion of the military and a sense that because it is an instrument of war, the people in it are necessarily warmongers.” The fact is, Reid argues, the military might be one of the country’s most liberal institutions.

“During the run-up to the Iraq war, when the media slipped into a chilling, McCarthyite posture, it was military leaders and soldiers who spoke most eloquently about people’s right to dissent.

And while our armed forces are by no means perfect (the treatment of women at the academies being a major black eye), they represent some of the brightest, bravest people in our society. In the armed forces, people like my younger brother find lifelong friendships with people of all backgrounds.

You’d think progressives would embrace those things.”


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