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Monday, November 17, 2003
Citizen Smash poses an interesting problem:

The all volunteer armed forces are too isolated from too many Americans, as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of the members of the armed forces identify themselves as Republicans and the fact that an increasing number of Americans have little or no contact with the military.

He wants to know how to remedy this problem.

My suggestion is to simply wait. Odds are the problem will fix itself in the long run.

The real issue here is not how to change the military. It is well educated, professional and, most importantly, the most effective in the world, bar none. It ain't broke and it don't need fixin. So don't fix it.

The real issue is how to effect change in the Democratic party so as to eliminate the need of candidates from that party to pander to the far left in order to obtain the nomination. If and when the party moves toward the center of the political spectrum, especially on issues of national security, the political makeup of the armed forces will become more diverse, thus increasing the overlap between the membership of the armed forces and the membership of the Democratic party. Increased overlap equates with increased contact, and Smash's problem is solved.

I should note at this point that the problem is not unique to the Democrats. One only needs to think of Patrick Buchanan to realize that the political spectrum has two places where a candidate or party (or a portion of a party) can reasonably be characterized as extreme. Perhaps the first thing for centrist organizations within the Democratic party such as the DLC to do is to give some thought to how the Republicans managed to marginalize the Buchanan wing of their own party.

To change the Democratic party, I think you have to work from both above and below. Clinton attempted change from above. He succeeded, at least for a while. He led the party towards the center. But no one from the current group of candidates has been able to duplicate Clinton's feat. Howard Dean's striking success in the earliest portions of the Presidential campaign meant that all of the candidates had to do what they could to emulate him or risk losing the nomination. If you aren't nominated, you can't run. If you can't run, you can't win. If you can't win, you can't govern. So candidates do what they can to win the nomination first, the election second and worry about the fallout from each later.

So what would the most successful Demcrat since FDR do? We know what he actually did: He promoted the candidacy of Wesley Clark, who, as a highly successful career officer is presumably no wuss on matters of national security. I don't think the strategy is working, but that's because Clark simply wasn't ready for prime time. Good strategy, poor execution in both timing and the choice of candidate. Although Clark might have been the best available, I don't think he was or is good enough. He has spent the last four weeks trying unsuccessfully to extricate his foot from his mouth. Additionally, he was a late entry with no organization. In national politics, its tough to work out the kinks as you go.

The evidence at this point is that the strategy of reforming the Democratic party from the top only by providing a centrist candidates can only have limited success. After a maximum of two terms, the same problem resurfaces. Therefore, in addition to having centrist candidates, the Democrats need an institutional incentive to prevent the need to kowtow to the far left during the run up to the nomination. That requires change from below, which, at least in theory, is relatively simple. The more moderate members of the party have to take back control of the nomination process from what James Taranto calls the angry left. To do that, moderate Democrats have to vote in the primaries in significant numbers. This, however, is one of those areas where theory is difficult to turn into practice. The far left wing of the Democratic party is very committed but relatively small in numbers. The moderates in the party are far greater in numbers, and could easily control the nominating process. The problem is that the moderates are difficult to involve in the primaries.

For the Democratic party to be moved toward the center of the political spectrum by the rank and file, the sum of the moderates' commitment and numbers has to outweigh the sum of the commitment and numbers of the far left. The numbers take care of themselves. What the Democrats need is a large group of committed centrists. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, it probably is, to some extent, and therefore effecting a sea change in the party from below will be very difficult.

In addition, I would suggest re-examining the rules governing the convention put into place by the McGovern campaign for his 1972 debacle. There are probably a lot of areas in which rules changes might foster more moderation within the ranks of activists.

Regardless of how change comes to the Democrats, I think Smash's problem is self correcting to a large degree. With the far left in control of the nomination, only far left candidates will be nominated, but they won't win in the general election. Continuous failure in the general election means that either the party will marginalize itself and lose its status as a force in national elections (and be replalced by another, more centrist group) or will reform itself so as to be able to field candidates capable of winning national elections.

The reform of the Democratic party is much more likely than its marginalization and eventual replacement. After losing five (Nixon-Humphrey, Nixon-McGovern, Reagan-Carter, Reagan-Mondale and Bush-Dukakis) out of six Presidential elections (the sixth was Carter-Ford, which Republican loss is almost wholly attributable to Watergate) the Democrats put forward a centrist, Clinton, who won two terms. Given that politicians want more than anything else to win, continuous losses are unacceptable. Additionally, while America is not particularly kind to politicians who lose, it is even less kind to third parties. Perot's campaign in 1992 was the high water point for post WWII third party movements. He won no electoral votes and some twenty percent of the popular vote. As a practical matter, he hasn't been heard from since.
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