Shrum is right: This is no time for Democrats to go wobbly. After Election Day—that’s the time to go wobbly!
As Republicans have learned, governing isn’t nearly so carefree as campaigning. Soon it will be the Democrats’ turn at the controls. Beginning on November 5, they will have a series of very important decisions to make.
1. Will they continue the moderate economic policies of the later Clinton years? Or will they interpret Barack Obama’s primary victories over Hillary Clinton as a mandate to repudiate Clintonism and revert to the more left-wing policies of the past? To what degree do they intend to “spread the wealth?”
The huge federal intervention in the financial sector raises this question in acute form. Will Democrats seek to liquidate federal ownership as rapidly as possible? Will they discipline themselves to vote the federal shares only with taxpayer considerations in mind? Or will they succumb to the strong temptation to use the federal role to pay off Democratic interest groups? (A little something for the unions, this for minority business owners, that for the big-city mayors, and this for the donor who was so helpful in the early days when it really counted.)
2. Will Democrats emancipate themselves from their soft-line foreign policy instincts?
This question, too, will take urgent form in the first days of a new administration. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. Barack Obama has spoken of increasing the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan but his words seemed obviously politically motivated. They broadcast a message: “See—I am not a reflexive left-wing peace puff!”
Now comes the time to make good on that commitment—or not. To succeed in Afghanistan, the U.S. and its allies will have to send more troops and spend more money. We will have to build a new national police force, target narco-traffickers and compel Pakistan to end its support for the insurgency. Those will be difficult and costly tasks, and many Democrats (like many U.S. allies) will doubt that the cost is worth the likely benefit.
Meanwhile, the Iraq strategy that Obama opposed is succeeding better than anyone dared hope. Will Obama jettison a winning program? Or will he challenge his dovish base, stay in Iraq and claim the success as his own?
Joe Biden was right: If Obama wins, America’s adversaries (and many of its friends) will test this inexperienced and unhardened new president. The young John F. Kennedy failed his early tests, which predictably led to a bigger one: the Cuban Missile Crisis. Can Barack Obama do better?
At home and abroad, Democrats will succeed only to the extent that they overcome their most self-defeating impulses and develop the backbone to say NO—and stick to it. Maybe this time, at long last, they will gain that strength. More likely, though, they will replay the past and do in office just what Shrum wants them to avoid in the final days of this campaign: Wobble.