Role of the Loyal Opposition: Foreign Policy Edition
Hopeful libertarians at Libertarians for America are arguing over what foreign policy agenda the Democrats need to lay out between now and 2006. Elsewhere, Matt Yglesias is proposing that since the Democrats want troops out, any Iraq news that make things look better is good for them, not bad.
Which brings to mind a key point about how democracy works. Not just as two (or more) ideologies vying for power, but as a free-market system where the competitors influence the actions of each other for the benefit of the consumer.
The Democrats are the opposition party. It is not their sole duty to lay out a specific “alternative path”. It is their duty to point out when the ruling party is acting wrongly. Maybe it is pointing out the flaws in the general policies and platforms of the governing party, but also it might just be pointing out the technocratic foibles and official excesses of the policies that are inacted. (Similarly, the governing party’s duty is not just to come up with a platform to follow, but to run the government officially.)
The Democrats can’t do this by creating one separate policy, and constantly insisting that it’s the best one. Why? Well it’s:
-head in the sand to what is going on;
-it eventually amounts to pornography for ideologists who don’t ever have responsibility about how their policies will actually play out;
-it removes people who don’t agree with either policy from having any role in politics at all, and
-it gives the administration too much of a pass when it comes doing bad things under policies the opposition agrees with (the proverbial example being Thatcher’s poll tax, a policy so unpopular that caused riots, but wasn’t stopped before then because the Labor party didn’t want to get involved).
In this case, look at how Democrats sticking to one path would pan out. Do they argue in favor of the war in Iraq, but better? Then the people who disagreed with the war are left out and there’s no discussion of the wider nature of our strategy. Do they argue against the war regardless? Then the people who feel the war was good, but that the administration has messed up many things are alienated, and if the administration has a majority behind the policy, it can enact that policy in any corrupt, inefficient, or politicized way it likes. The oppositions job is to make opportunistic pot-shots, not because they need to set themselves up as a specific alternative, but so the governing party is kept honest.
I think this applies to most domestic programs, but one should remember that foreign policy and security issues are incredibly hard for the opposition. The executive is always granted a great deal of political capital in these matters. He gets the bully pulpit, gets to determine all actions that actually happen, has access to all classified information, and is presumed to be acting in American non-political interest (until proven otherwise). The on instance of a President paying any price for foreign policy actions was rebellion from within his own party and in a fairly catastrophic circumstance (Johnson, ’68). In comparison, opposition parties that have focused on criticizing the President during war have suffered pretty humiliating defeats (the Federalists during War of 1812, non-Democrats during the Mexican War, Democrats during the Civil War, Democrats in 72, and to some degree the 2004 loss).
Indeed, most calls for “coherent foreign policy alternative” are not from strategists trying to create a balanced political climate, but agents with specific foreign policy goals. Do not let your belief about what the best policy is, convince you it is also what the Democrats need to do to win (in a purely positivist analysis at least).