History, by appraising. ..[the students] of the past, will enable them to judge of the future.
Jay Cost in the Weekly Standard suggests two models for how Obama will react to today’s political rebuke. One is the response of Bill Clinton to the loss of Congress in 1994, where he shifted back to the center, “triangulating” between liberal Democratic orthodoxy and Republican conservativism, agreeing to cut taxes and spending, reform welfare, implement a line-item veto provision, and move toward a balanced budget. By claiming the middle ground, Clinton won re-election in 1996, but did little to help Democrats win back Congress.
Cost contrasts Clinton’s compromising with the tough stand Harry Truman took in 1947-48 against the “do nothing” Republican Congress he found confronting him. Truman believed he could hold or win back the big city labor and Catholic vote, most of the South, and the progressive West by continuing Roosevelt’s New Deal policies (later repackaged as the “Fair Deal”). Against much skepticism, “Give ‘em Hell Harry” won re-election in 1948, and brought a Democratic Congress with him.
Cost mentions, but does not dwell upon, the second part of Truman’s “two-pronged strategy” to recapture power—his tough, anti-Communist foreign policy. Truman’s “two prongs” followed Roosevelt, who from 1940 on, stood for an internationalist American foreign policy, then led America to victory in World War II. By taking on the U.S.S.R. and Communism in 1947, Truman made himself commander-in-chief of an America united against a common enemy, leaving Republicans little choice but to fall in line behind. From 1940 to 1965, therefore, the principle that “Politics stops at the water’s edge” meant presidents could dampen down their political opposition by uniting the country against a common enemy abroad.
So will Obama follow Clinton by moving to the center, will he follow Truman’s “two-pronged strategy” by going hard against Republicans domestically, but as president uniting the country against Islamic extremism, or will he focus on domestic issues as the Democratic left wants him to do, and downplay any overseas Islamic threat?
Since Vietnam, Democrats have abdicated a strong U.S. foreign policy, leaving leadership in national security to Republicans—Nixon’s China initiative and SALT treaty with the U.S.S.R., Reagan’s Cold War victory over the U.S.S.R., George H.W. Bush’s “Desert Storm” liberation of Kuwait opposed by a majority of Democratic senators, and George W. Bush’s willingness to take on Islamic terrorists where they live and plot.
I don't think Obama will move to the center, à la Clinton.
In peaceful times, such as the 1990s, total focus on domestic affairs may work out for Democrats. In 2010, we face terrorists in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and in a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran, we confront a fully-engaged Islamic extremist power. Obama might do well to follow Truman’s example, and lead a country united at “at the water’s edge” against our common enemy, even as he takes on Republicans at home.