WASHINGTON -- With his interference in the 2016 election, Russian President Vladimir Putin achieved something that none of his murderous Soviet predecessors were able to accomplish: He has turned Democrats into Russia hawks.
A few months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan addressed the 1992 Republican National Convention and said: “I heard those speakers at that other convention saying ‘we won the Cold War’ -- and I couldn’t help wondering, just who exactly do they mean by ‘we’?” He had a point. Today, Democrats may be deeply concerned about the threat Russia poses to our democracy.
But during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union posed an existential threat to our democracy, not so much. Most Democrats opposed the Reagan policies that led to the fall of the Soviet empire. They fought the Reagan defense buildup and his Strategic Defense Initiative (which Sen. Edward M. Kennedy dismissed as “Star Wars” and Sen. John F. Kerry called “a dream based on illusion”). They supported the Soviet-supported nuclear freeze movement and opposed Reagan’s deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles to Western Europe. They criticized Reagan’s efforts to arm freedom fighters seeking to overthrow Soviet puppet regimes and support to pro-American governments fighting communist insurgencies.
Not only did Democrats oppose Reagan’s policies, they heaped scorn on his blunt anti-Communist rhetoric. After Reagan called on the Soviets to “tear down” the Berlin Wall, Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright declared he had “utter contempt for Reagan” because he had “spoiled the chance for a dramatic breakthrough in relations between our two countries.” While Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” and promised to leave it on “the ash-heap of history,” Democrats such as Kennedy criticized Reagan for his “misleading Red-scare tactics.”
There were exceptions, to be sure. The legendary Democratic Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson was a fierce anti-Communist. Those like him were known as “Scoop Jackson Democrats.” They were given this name for a reason: to distinguish them from most other Democrats who did not share Jackson’s hard-line approach.
Old habits of appeasement die hard, so when the Cold War ended the Democrats continued their soft line toward Moscow. Democratic opposition to President George W. Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was more strident than that of Vladimir Putin. There was virtual silence from Democrats when President Barack Obama callously threw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus by canceling our missile defense agreements in an effort to appease Moscow. In 2012, when Mitt Romney called Russia our “number one geopolitical foe,” Democrats mocked him mercilessly. Obama told Romney, “The 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” And Vice President Joe Biden said Romney “acts like he thinks the Cold War is still on.” The Republican focus on Russia was considered laughable by most Democrats.
But now, a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Democrats have belatedly decided that Russia is a threat.
For decades, while the Soviet Union sowed tyranny across the globe, sent millions to rot in the Gulag, and threatened America with nuclear annihilation, Democrats were for detente and peaceful coexistence. Even as Putin continued Russia’s pattern authoritarian aggression, undermining democracy at home and invading his neighbors, they advocated a “reset” of relations. It was only when Russia invaded John Podesta’s privacy that Democrats were finally -- finally! -- outraged.
But before Republicans gloat over the Democrats’ hypocrisy, they need to be careful and not to mirror the Democrats’ Russia transformation by becoming Kremlin apologists. The fact that Democrats are suddenly channeling their inner Reagan is no excuse for those on the right to start channeling their inner Kennedy. Conservatives don’t have to take the Democrats’ belated Russia outrage seriously. But they do need to take Russia seriously.
As for Democrats, let’s hope their newfound antipathy for Russia is not just a convenient way to get President Trump. Russia is a threat not just because it interfered in the 2016 election. Russia is a threat because it assassinates Putin’s critics with chemical weapons, shoots down civilian airliners, arms the Taliban, supports Iran, violates its treaty obligations, targets NATO allies with nuclear missiles and annexes the territory of its neighbors. That threat will still be there when Trump is gone. The question is: Will the Democrats still be Russia hawks then?
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter @marcthiessen.