Cyrus Vance in his farewell-to-diplomacy speech at the Harvard commencement this year noted, correctly, that "it is far too easy, in an election year, to let what may seem smart politics produce bad policies."
We have just had a glittering example of this truism in the form of the geyser of lectures from the Carter White House to the European allies about the dangers of dealing with the Soviets. This geyser, in the form of a letter from President Carter to West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, accompanied by sundry background briefings and "guidances" from members of the White House staff to Washington reporters, preceded the President's meetings with the European allies in Venice.
The implication of it all is that men in Washington are more aware of the "Soviet menace" than are their innocent allies in Europe and that the allies should leave all talking to the Soviets to the men of Washington.
Well, if you consider that the allies live under the cold weight of massive Soviet weapons and daily feel the hot breath of Soviet propaganda and power politics, the warnings and advice from across the Atlantic sound gratuitous. After all, who is more likely to know the danger and understand the technique of surviving that danger than those who have to live closest to it?
On the surface it has to be put down to nothing more than bad manners to be lecturing the European allies in this fashion.
but then, if you turn around and look at this from the point of view of domestic US politics it may well turn out to be one of the shrewdest tactical operations of the Carter campaign and one which might pay off handsomely in votes in November.
Behind the operation is the simple fact that Republicans usually have managed to get the advantage over Democrats in flag-waving patriotism.
It goes all the way back to the Civil War when the Republicans were the party of the union and of the war. They had no constituents in the South. They grabbed the Stars and Stripes to their bosom, and have been waving them ever since, with reminders to the voters that the Democrats tried to straddle the Civil War, wanted to compromise it, and never were quite as enthusiastic about it as were the Republicans. From the Civil War almost until World War I the Republican Party and the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Union army veterans) were virtually identical.
And from the Civil War even to this day, the Democrats have tended to be more concerned about the welfare of successive waves of immigrants than were the Republicans who were more interested in exclusion laws.* The immigrants naturally became constituents of the Democrats. But since immigrants are, after all, "foreigners," it left the Republicans with the inside advantage with "Americans" (i.e., those who had arrived earlier), hence with a presumption of superior patriotism.
And the Republicans have played this tune over and over again, often with considerable success. During the post-Civil War era it was called "waving the bloody shirt." In more modern times it has taken the form of the charge that Democrats tend to be "soft on communism."
Republicans made particularly good use of the fact that China went communist while Democrats were in office in Washington. This was, of course, use as evidence of Democratic softness. It became an important factor in American politics until Richard Nixon defused it by going to Peking and reopening relations with the Chinese communists.
Now we have a new campaign opening up.Mr. Reagan has positioned himself about as far to the "patriotic" right as it is possible to get. It behooves Mr. Carter to get onto that same safe, high ground if he is to avoid being outflanked on the right. And how better to get onto that same safe, high ground , than to take the lead in seeing the "Soviet menace," in warning others against that "Soviet menace," and in proposing sterner measures against the "Soviet menace" than the allies can yet manage?
It is safe high ground. Mr. Carter is solidly planted on it alongside of Mr. Reagan. It may make poor foreign policy (as almost any foreign policy expert or diplomat will tell you), but it makes first-rate domestic politics. There is certainly no mileage in this election year for "getting along with the Russians." Mr. Carter understands that just as well as does Mr. Reagan. So we might as well shelve serious foreign policy until the election is over.