We can see how the right's natural advantage in asserting leadership works in the different reactions to the Iraq war and Kosovo. The right was able to get away with near sedition, but Dems are still paying for voting against the first Iraq War. In fact, overcompensating for those votes led people like Kerry (and maybe Hillary) to vote for the second Iraq war, something they had to understand was just bad public policy and built on lies anyway.
Votes like that are signs of a serious problem to overcome in the area of toughness, and I think that the Spanish Socialists can help show us the way to navigate it, in particularly presenting themselves as sufficiently tough to lead while pursuing rational strategies to create a more peaceful society.
In Spain, the 'them' is cast as internal, particularly the Basques and Catalan, who are always seen as threatening to secede. The socialists outsmarted both the secesssionist Catalan party (Esquerra Republicana) and the right-ing Spanish nationalist Partido Popular by first negotiating a new autonomy Statute with Esquerra and then going behind their backs to modify it with a more moderate center right Catalan nationalist Party (Convergencia i Unió), as I described in the last post.
Now, they are negotiating with the left-wing Basque secessionists, who unlike the Catalans and right wing Basque nationalists became terrorists called ETA. ETA started opposing Franco, but it continued after democracy was reestablished because I guess they realized that they wouldn't get their way under the Spanish constitution. Recently, after being weakened legally, politically, and economically, they declared a cease-fire, and the Socialist government agreed to negotiate their disolution.
At this point the right went crazy: "The government is negotiating with terrorists!!!! They should just be crushed, blah, blah, blah." The upshot: "the left is weak on terror and not be trusted to preserve Spain." The government simply responded that they were going to negotiate, that the PP (right wing party) tried to negotiate when they were in power without a cease fire, and it was the right thing to do. The right's response was predictable. Increase the volume: "They are surrendering to terrorists!" and there was a huge demonstration in Madrid against the negotiations.
Today, once again, the Socialists pulled the rug out from under the Partido Popular. They just had a massive police raid in France and Spain, that dismantled the terrorists' financial network. It is now hard to say that the government is surrendering. In fact, the Basque nationalist left is howling, which only helps. Maybe the negotiations will be postponed. Maybe they'll collapse (but I don't think so. They wouldn't be negotiating if they didn't have to). However, the government has sent a clear signal that they are on "our" (i.e., Spain's) side as opposed to supporting impractical ideals of peace and happiness, which can be achieved by negotiating away "our" interests with terrorists or secessionists generally.
The point is that progressives need to provide evidence that we are tough, a bit tribal, and even a bit bloody minded, more than the right does. We do not have to go knee-jerk defensive. Overcompensating leads to votes for the current Iraq war or getting dragged into Indo-china type conflicts that are immoral and impractical. However, it is necessary to take tribal self-interest into the calculus, think long term, and make that thinking clear rhetorically. Above all, show we are in favor of America in credible ways.
Why not, for instance, hone in on the situation in Afganistan over and over? ("they are losing against the Taliban!"
Why not keep insisting that any withdrawal from Iraq is made necessary by bad previous leadership? ("They messed up so badly, we have to do this to preserve our strength!")
Why not point to the decline in US prestige over and over mentioning that this means greater weakness, not that they don't like us because we 're not nice? "They have undermined our country's prestige!!"