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15th July 2008 Charles J. Brown
05:55 pm

What Obama and McCain Can Learn from Arthur Vandenberg


Before I had the pleasure of writing for Undiplomatic, I would occasionally comment on other blogs.  One time, Passport, Foreign Policy’s fine publication, had a post on foreign policy cliches that should be put out to pasture.  Readers were asked to offer their suggestions as well.  Here’s what I wrote:

Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan’s famous statement about partisanship ending at our nation’s shore is not only overused, but also increasingly untrue — especially after President Bush’s ridiculously partisan remarks in the Knesset yesterday.

I stand by that observation, but I wish it wasn’t the case.  Bipartisanship (which is what Vandenberg meant — not nonpartisanship) is a worthwhile goal; when it happens, it usually is a good thing.  World War II, the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall Plan come to mind immediately, but so do more recent examples: the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan — as intended, not executed; PEPFAR; the National Endowment for Democracy; and anti-trafficking measures.

Sadly, though, in recent years bipartisanship has usually meant something completely different:  Democrats in Congress caving in to whatever President Bush wants.  The examples are too numerous to list, but the recent FISA bill debacle is a good example.  That’s not bipartisanship, but rather a fundamental failure by the Democratic party to demonstrate even a hint of backbone on national security issues.

So should we abandon bipartisanship as an antiquated concept now only pursued by fools and tools?  I think that would be a mistake for three reasons.

  1. Democrats have caved in recent years not only because they had no alternative vision of foreign policy, but also because they didn’t want to have one.  As Matt Yglesias notes in Heads in the Sand, his fine new book (I seem to have turned into an Yglesias shill today), Democrats have become so convinced that the Republicans are much stronger on national security that they believe they can’t win if it is an issue — and that to win, they need to redirect the conversation to their “true” strengths,  domestic issues and the economy.  The problem with that, of course, is that you can’t win an election if you’ve allowed the voters to believe that you aren’t capable of keeping America safe.
  2. Republicans not only aren’t better at foreign policy, they have a pretty awful record in recent years.
  3. True bipartisanship can actually produce better results.

I think both Obama and McCain understand the importance of bipartisanship, at least in the abstract.  Both have a track record of producing real results by working with the other side of the aisle.  Obama worked closely with Richard Lugar on arms reduction (yes I knew that before Obama started running ads on it today).  McCain, before he inexplicably changed his mind last fall, was a leading voice in opposition to the Administration’s torture policies.  The problem is that the pressures of a presidential campaign have made it harder for both to support bipartisan approaches, and any effort by either candidate to straddle an issues is called either triangulation, moving to the center, or, worst of all, flip-flopping.

It would be useful for both Senators if they took a moment to recall the real story of Arthur Vandenberg’s partisanship.  Yes, he is remembered largely because of his willingness to support the Administration on the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.  In fact, both initiatives might have failed had Vandenberg not used his authority as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to drain politics from the process.

But what most forget is that Vandenberg’s support for “internatonalism,” as he called it, represented one of the great flip-flops in American history:  in the 1930s, he had been an outspoken isolationist and New Deal opponent.  And while he supported the Roosevelt Administration’s prosecution the Second World War, most people expected that he, like his colleague Robert Taft of Ohio, would return to isolationism once the conflict ened.

When, on January 10, 1945, he instead stood up in the Senate and announced his change of heart, it was such big news that papers called it the “speech heard round the world.”  And of course, rather than attacking him for changing his mind, Vandenberg was praised — rightly — for his honesty and intellectual courage.

If only that could be the case today.  Both Obama and McCain are getting beaten up for being flip floppers.  Although we should chastise either/both when such changes reflect mere opportunism (Obama: FISA; McCain: Bush tax cuts), we need to be careful not to attack just because they happened to change their minds.

Imagine for a moment if the rest of our lives required us to adhere to a given position once we or our ancestors had made a decision.  We’d have slaves.  Women couldn’t vote.  Baseball and football would look like they did in the 1920s.  Movies would still be silent.  We’d all be married to the first person we dated.  Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush would have had second terms. And a one-vote majority on the Supreme Court would rule based only on what they think the Constitution meant in 1789, even thought the founders saw it as an organic, living document that would adapt to changes in society.

In the case of foreign policy (and both candidates gave major speeches on it today), the central issue remains Iraq.  Things on the ground are changing rapidly, and yet they haven’t changed enough to demonstrate that we’ve turned a corner.  And yet both campaigns — and the media — appear absolutely determined to pound each other on even the most minor of tactical adjustments.  Shouldn’t we instead support the candidate most willing to be flexible to conditions on the ground?

After all chaning your mind can actually be a good thing.  Just ask Harry Truman about Arthur Vandenberg.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 15th, 2008 at 5:55 pm and is filed under foreign policy, politics. It is tagged under , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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