What Will Replace Cold War Politics?

Posted: February 23, 1992

You probably don't remember Ronald Reagan's grizzly bear. It lumbered across your TV screen in 1984. It was a canny metaphor for the Cold War - brought to you by the same folks who had created ads for Gallo Wines and Meow Mix.

There it was, two months before Election Day, trudging along a hilltop. The narrator intoned: "For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear?" Pause. "If there is a bear."

The GOP had done it again. The ad never mentioned the Soviets. It said nothing about communism. And it never invoked the name of President Reagan's opponent, Democrat Walter Mondale. As former Mondale aide Bill Galston now recalls, "It didn't have to shriek 'The Russians are coming!' It tapped into people's fears in a subtle, nuanced way. It meant that we were in trouble."

Life was simpler in the old days. For four decades, GOP candidates painted their opponents as Cold War wimps. But in 1992 there will be no bear, no footage of menacing Soviet tanks, no "soft on communism" insinuations. The Red Scare is a historical memory, the old rules of rhetorical combat no longer apply - and the Democrats stand ready to reap the advantage.

This is the first presidential campaign of the post-Cold War era, the first time in 48 years that candidates are not required to take an anti-communist litmus test. Shades of gray have replaced black and white. Democrats and Republicans alike are groping for an expanded definition of "national security," one that embraces economic strength as well as military prowess.

"Who's the bear these days, Kazakhstan?" said Democratic consultant Ann Lewis. "The bear has faded as a threat to the everyday lives of Americans. The dominant mood this year is (domestic) economic anxiety, verging on fear. The job description for the office of 'commander in chief' has changed. One struggle, in this campaign, will be to rewrite that job description."

"What a fascinating time," said international expert Madeleine Albright, who was favored to become Michael Dukakis' secretary of state. "In 1984 and 1988, I knew exactly how to write a foreign policy speech - 'I'm for this missile, I'm against that missile.' But what is 'strength' in 1992? Is it the number of missiles you have, or whether we're feeling strong economically?"

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Democrats clearly hope that these historic developments will help their cause in the South, traditionally the most hawkish region. Analysts agree that the Democrats cannot beat George Bush without breaking the GOP's Southern stranglehold. But they say it can happen in a year when domestic concerns are paramount, at a time when the old Cold War verities no longer matter.

"The world has turned upside down in the last four years," Galston said. ''So this is an opportunity.

"But like all opportunities, it can be blown. Voters don't just vote their pocketbooks. It's not that simple."

Indeed, some Democrats privately fear that Bill Clinton's avoidance of the

Vietnam draft could provide Bush with a fresh variation on the old "soft Democrats" theme.

Bush won the final Cold War campaign, in 1988, by depicting Dukakis as a left-wing softie, jeering at one point: "I wouldn't be surprised if he thought a naval exercise was something you find in Jane Fonda's workbook." Among those voters who ranked foreign policy as their top concern - 25 percent of the electorate - Bush swamped Dukakis by a 5-1 ratio.

But today, even Republicans believe that the new Zeitgeist could hurt Bush.

"The old 'strength' test isn't likely to be true this time," said veteran GOP adviser Doug Bailey. "This election is about the future. People are afraid their jobs won't exist in five years, so what economic vision, at home and abroad, will make people comfortable? That's the biggest problem Bush has."

At the moment, few seem to care about international events. Public Opinion Strategies, which measures the public's pulse for the GOP, concludes that 49 percent rate "the economy/recession" or "unemployment" as the nation's most important problem. Foreign policy was named by 1 percent.

"It plays to the Democrats' benefit," said Eddie Mahe, a GOP adviser with longtime links to Bush, "because they just want foreign policy to go away. They've had no credibility. Dukakis was totally and absolutely poor. He was just so goofy. They'd love it if universal peace was declared."

Republicans have their own problems, because the demise of the bear is wreaking havoc inside the party. Conservative factions, once bonded by the glue of anticommunism, are in rebellion. Candidate Pat Buchanan may have drawn a huge protest vote from recession-minded New Hampshirites, but he is focusing on an isolationist message that has not been heard in GOP circles since 1940. In Buchanan's words, "The Cold War is over. Time for America to come home."

The Cold War, and Reagan's principles, kept conservatives in line. But the Soviets are gone, Reagan is gone, and Bush gets no respect.

"If ever a President deserves to lose, it's Bush," said Burton Pines, vice president of the Heritage Foundation, which was Reagan's favorite think tank. "His foreign policy is a disaster. To go to Japan with a tin cup, and take those clowns from Detroit - that was embarrassing."

Buchanan says Bush was wrong to wage war against Saddam Hussein; Pines says that the war was right but that Bush was wrong to leave Hussein in power. All told, however, this infighting is widely viewed as a sideshow. In the words of political analyst Stephen Hess: "In the general election, all those folks will have no place else to go. They'll hold their noses and vote for Bush."

Far more important will be the fight for the hearts and minds of "swing" voters, the uncommitted 20 percent who decide elections. Bear or no bear, the GOP still intends to hum its foreign policy tune.

"People won't want an untrained hand at the helm, any more than they did before," said Jim Nathanson, political director for the Republican National Committee.

"People will remember that this President has lifted the fear of nuclear holocaust off the heads of their children," Nathanson said. "And when they understand the unrest that's still out there in the world, they'll want steady leadership."

Eddie Mahe scoffed, "Take Clinton - his only foreign policy experience is that he was a Rhodes scholar in England." And Bailey said: "These Democrats will have trouble measuring up to certain standards of international leadership. It'll happen around Labor Day, when people say to themselves, 'This is serious now, one of these guys will be the leader of the Western world.' "

"How about the lack of control of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union?" said Bailey. "That can scare people if it's raised properly. Then the message is, you need someone with foreign policy experience."

Which is why Bill Galston, who now advises the Clinton campaign, insists the Democrats can't ignore foreign policy in 1992 - even in the absence of Cold War tensions, even though the GOP polls say that nobody is looking abroad.

"Voters are very aware of the President's unique job description," he said. "They're subliminally aware that every president, going back to FDR, has put American troops in harm's way. It's easy to forget this. Some of my fellow Democrats have a hard time getting it through their heads."

Democrats have played defense on foreign policy for years, and even now, in their moment of opportunity, the habit persists. Albright made a prediction: ''The campaign's going South now, so we'll hear a lot about the gulf war, about the 'commander-in-chief,' a lot of chest-thumping. They'll revert to their golden oldies. And maybe they'll cook up a crisis, an April surprise - involving Hussein, or perhaps Libya."

Nathanson, the GOP official, didn't care for that last suggestion. He declared, "That's pure, unmitigated bull."

Pines, the conservative, doesn't think the public would buy it anyway.

"The Democrats are paranoid," he said. "Americans simply don't feel threatened by an outside enemy. They felt threatened in 1960 when Kennedy made up a 'missile gap.' They felt threatened in 1980, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. But because of the economy, anything Bush tries would be too blatant."

Democrats know they must define their post-Cold War agenda before the GOP's advertising team defines it for them. Clinton must do it, analysts said, if he hopes to shift attention away from his draft-avoidance acts of 1969. This will be particularly important in the South, where, with the lone exception of Jimmy Carter's Georgia in 1980, the Democrats have not captured a state since 1976.

Galston is hopeful. In the absence of a Soviet nuclear threat, he said, ''people now have a more complex, multilayered view of the threats facing this country. There's a profound set of international economic worries, and a Democrat can seize the high ground by making a link between economic growth and national strength."

But Albright is not sure that people will buy it: "A big question this year is whether the public will accept a new definition of national security - or will they just want to count warheads? The Cold War is over, but do people know what they want the president to protect them from?"

In 1988, she pointed out, Dukakis delivered speeches about a post-Cold War world - but nobody listened. So, to convey old-fashioned "strength," he donned a helmet and rode in a tank. The rest is history.

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