This year's State of the Union came not long after Karl Rove sparked outrage among liberals by unveiling the GOP's strategy for the 2006 elections. "At the core, we are dealing with two parties that have fundamentally different views on national security," Rove said. "Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview." I think Rove's claim is largely false, and I think his strategy is cynical. But if Rove wanted evidence that it will succeed, then he should have watched the State of the Union with me.
I watched the speech at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, perhaps the most high-profile liberal advocacy organization in the country. A panel of pundits--which included radio commentator Sam Seder as well as several liberal bloggers--were there to "decode, debunk, and deride" Bush's speech in real time on Air America.
A packed house of 100 or so viewers huddled around a few plasma screen TVs to watch the address. Early on, when Bush invoked September 11, the audience let out a loud groan and snickered. Seconds later, the president mentioned "weapons of mass destruction" for the first time. A bell rang, and the audience laughed; then Bush said the words "freedom" and "terror" and bells rang again, followed by more laughter. This ritual was repeated throughout the speech whenever Bush uttered any of these words or phrases.
This made me wonder: Why the visceral reaction to these particular formulations? The speech contained plenty of lines worthy of ridicule, and Bush certainly uses his share of dishonest conservative catchphrases ("activist judges" for instance). But spreading freedom around the world is--or should be--a paramount goal of liberalism. Meanwhile, terrorism remains a real threat to America, and a source of continuing death and destruction the world over. As for "weapons of mass destruction": A fanatical regime in Iran with a history of sponsoring terrorism and a stated desire to see Israel "wiped off the map" is well on its way to having such weapons. This is not an invention of the Republican imagination; it is reality. Why, then, laugh at Bush's warning that "Dictatorships shelter terrorists, and feed resentment and radicalism, and seek"--get ready for that bell to ring--"weapons of mass destruction"?
To be sure, there is a compelling argument that Bush overuses these words, or uses them to justify unwise policies. "Terror" and "weapons of mass destruction" can be invoked effectively and cynically to raise levels of public fear and alarm. And certainly Bush has, in practice, proven less than fully committed to his stated desire to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world. But if liberals disagree with Bush's means, they can still remain sympathetic to his ends. Even the most vociferous critic of the Iraq war, or the most zealous opponent of domestic wiretapping, should agree that preventing terror, denying nuclear weapons to dictatorships, and opposing tyranny are worthy goals.
And yet when Bush spoke of "writing a new chapter in the story of self-government," spectators burst into laughter. When he said, "Ultimately, the only way to defeat the terrorists is to defeat their dark vision of hatred and fear by offering the hopeful alternative of political freedom and peaceful change," I heard a mix of bell ringing and belly laughs. Why is the goal of promoting "political freedom" worthy of such derision?
The point is bigger than just one gathering at a liberal organization. In the years since September 11, many liberals seem to have concluded that you're not really opposing Bush's means unless you also scorn his stated ends. That's too bad. Liberals have no chance of winning the national security debate if they dismiss its premises. I think most liberals recognize this, but some are so disgusted with the current administration that they feel compelled to oppose--and to mock--anything with Bush's name on it. And any Democrats, like Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, who oppose the Bush administration yet decline to scoff at the notion that America ought to stand for the spread of human freedom are liable to be labeled weak, neoconservative, or traitorous to their own cause.
This only stifles the possibility of a serious liberal alternative to Bush's policies. As long as Democrats are required by their base to ridicule Bush's ends rather than his means, they will have lost the debate over foreign policy before it even starts. Indeed, despite the unpopularity of the Iraq war, recent polling shows that Americans still trust Republicans more than Democrats on national security.
September 11 changed American foreign policy by raising issues like terror, weapons of mass destruction, and foreign tyranny to a level of a heightened importance. When Democratic bloggers and activists mock Bush for privileging these issues, it may please some liberals. But the person it pleases most is Karl Rove.
Steven Groopman is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.
Correction: This article originally misstated the order in which Bush first spoke the words "weapons of mass destruction," "freedom," and "terror" in his State of the Union address. We regret the error.
By Steven Groopman