`Star wars' and the political fortunes of the Democrats

SINCE President Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in 1983, there has been strong and powerful opposition to the idea, most of it from the left side of the political spectrum. One curious aspect of this opposition is that the scientists who raise technical objections and the nuclear weapons experts who detect flaws in the military strategy are, to the best of my knowledge, virtually all Democrats. When you can safely predict that a scientist or a nuclear weapons expert who is opposed to our missile defense efforts will more than likely turn out to be a registered Democrat, then you can be pretty sure you are dealing with a political issue, not a scientific one or a military one. In fact, much of the Democrats' recent opposition to the notion of missile defense can be explained as a reflex action to an overwhelming political problem they have.

Two prime policy issues have dominated the political debate in the United States for the last 40 years -- defense policy and economic policy. When either of our political parties gets crosswise with the American voter on one of these issues, it is in severe political trouble. And if it gets on the wrong side of both issues for long enough it can destroy itself.

The Democrats are already on the wrong side of economic policy. When President Reagan announced his comprehensive economic program in the 1980 campaign they quickly denounced it. For the last five years they have been searching desperately for an alternative. They have not yet found one, and the reason they have not found one is that none exists.

The Democrats made a fundamental political error by allowing Mr. Reagan to stake his claim for the only politically viable solution to the economic difficulties that faced us then. There is nothing inherently ``Republican'' about Reaganomics. A pro-growth, tax-cut economic policy once proved powerfully effective for President John F. Kennedy. If the Democrats had had the wit, six years ago, to endorse a set of economic policies on which a national consensus was rapidly forming, they, rather than the Republicans, would now be reaping the political benefits from a steadily improving economy.

But once Reagan staked his claim on economic policy, the only course open to the Democrats was to say ``me too,'' and while that may be good for the country, it's not very good politics. Few people remember the silver medal winners in the Olympic Games, and fewer still remember politicians who echo their opponents' proposals.

When President Reagan suddenly proposed a missile defense system for this country in 1983, he placed the Democrats in an impossible political situation. The SDI was a radical, fundamental change in our nuclear defense strategy, a proposal to move from a policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD), which relies on the threat of the revenge killing of millions of innocent people as a deterrent, to a missile defense shield, which relies on killing incoming nuclear missiles before they can kill anyone.

Morally, the policy of a missile defense shield is vastly superior to mutually assured destruction. And the swift advances in rocket and laser beam technology since we abandoned our first efforts at missile defense in the mid-1970s have tremendously increased the practicality of missile defense. And what is moral and practical can be dynamite politics.

As with Reagan's economic policy, there is nothing inherently ``Republican'' about missile defense. In fact, it was President Lyndon B. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara who pushed the development of a nationwide missile defense system in the late 1960s.

But the Democrats let Reagan get the policy draw on them again in 1983. For political reasons they couldn't say ``me too'' to SDI, and they had no other real options, except the less than satisfying policy of mutually assured destruction.

The Democrats' dilemma is now that, for the Democrats to succeed politically, a US missile defense system must fail. For if we do begin to deploy an effective missile shield, the Democrats would have only two choices. They could either admit they were wrong and belatedly embrace the idea, or they could persist in their opposition, which would become more irrelevant with each passing day. Either course is politically damaging, particularly when taken together with their economic policy blunder in 1980.

To a significant extent, the political fortunes of the Democrats in the years ahead will rise or fall on the failure or success of our attempts at missile defense.

What is now good for the country is bad for the Democrats.

Martin Anderson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, was President Reagan's assistant for policy development in 1981 and '82.

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