Liberal Democrats today are faced with an unhappy paradox. The most significant factor in John Kerry’s defeat was that, according to exit polls, 79 percent of voters who said terrorism or national security determined their vote chose the chickenhawk over the war hero. Though they agreed with the Democrats on most issues–and agreed, by a 49 to 45 percent margin, according to election day exit polls, that the Iraq War had made us less, not more, secure–a majority of voters still felt safer with the idea of George W. Bush minding the store. Based on the evidence, it is almost a perfectly irrational reaction to reality. Everything the Bush Administration has done in the security realm has proved not merely wasteful and ineffective but counterproductive. Consider the following:

§ Osama bin Laden remains free, and Al Qaeda has been allowed to regroup.

§ Iraq, which was not a terrorist threat before Bush attacked it, now accounts for the killing and maiming of Americans daily.

§ North Korea, the world’s most dangerously irrational regime, stands poised to test a nuclear bomb.

§ Iran, another regime motivated by fear and hatred of the United States, also stands poised to develop a nuclear weapon.

§ The most obvious terrorist targets in America–nuclear and chemical plants, water and food supplies and transportation networks–remain as vulnerable to terrorists as they were on September 10, 2001, endangering as many as 12 million people in a single attack.

§ Outside our borders, America is hated as never before, inspiring terrorist recruitment across the Islamic world.

All of these negative developments are the result of Bush Administration policies that required the reversal or rejection of Democratic alternatives. In some cases the Administration achieved its aims by deliberate deception, fooling more than a few supposedly tough-minded “liberal hawks” about not only its evidence but also its intentions–and in a few cases it did so with scare tactics designed to exploit the emotions aroused by the 9/11 attacks. In none of these instances, however, did the Administration win its argument with an honest assessment of the evidence or consideration of available alternatives.

Democrats have a separate set of answers for the problems that bedevil US security policy, as Matthew Yglesias concluded after he surveyed a host of foreign policy programs from the leading Democratic-oriented think tanks and independent analysts in a recent issue of The American Prospect. He found a strong consensus on the kinds of steps necessary to develop a foreign policy that will increase our level of protection from catastrophic terrorist attack at home while rebuilding our alliances for the purpose of frustrating the organization and implementation of attacks from abroad. Yglesias included reports from the Democratic Leadership Council, the Century Foundation, the Center for American Progress and the House Homeland Security Committee minority staff. I would add a recently published compendium of articles from the Open Society Institute and the newly formed Security and Peace Institute, titled Restoring American Leadership, which does a good job of summing up the position. None are exactly bedtime reading–unless you’re trying to fall asleep. And, of course, the problems created and/or exacerbated by the Administration aren’t easily solvable; nobody really knows what to do about the unholy mess in Iraq or how to talk North Korea down from its nuclear pretensions now that the Administration’s all stick, no carrot policy has proved a miserable failure. Even so, almost all these reports would appeal to any sane person who believes, for instance, that when one particular group attacks your nation, it is a good idea to fight those people rather than another group of people who may speak a similar language, have a similar skin color and practice the same religion but had nothing to do with the attack.

And yet making sense on foreign policy is not enough. It may actually be a net negative. As Bill Clinton famously explained, Americans prefer a President who appears “strong and wrong” to one who seems right but looks weak. If that means getting a bunch of innocent people killed or making foreign policy problems worse, so be it. Council on Foreign Relations president emeritus Leslie Gelb admitted as much when he wrote on the Wall Street Journal editorial page of the Democrats’ alleged “Cheney Envy.” (No, I do not think this was a reference to recent photos of the VP appearing on the Internet.) Gelb argued that “sometimes, even often, he and President Bush use [military power] too blatantly and bluntly, and it backfires. Such has been true of the administration’s clumsy and erratic efforts to stop nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea.” Nor does it matter that Bush and Cheney “let U.S. forces march off to smash Saddam without a plan to win the peace, or…[that their] contempt alienated our closest allies needlessly.” What matters, at least politically, he argued, is that “Americans need to feel assured that our leaders will crush those who would hurt us. Correctly or incorrectly, Americans wonder whether Democrats have the stomach for this. They don’t wonder about Mr. Cheney or Mr. Bush.”

It’s true that the Iraq War has grown increasingly unpopular since the election, and future developments in Iran and North Korea may further reinforce the Administration’s failure to face up to the limitations of its aggressive unilateralism. But the fact remains that the only two presidential elections won by a Democrat since 1976 took place in the brief interregnum between the end of the cold war and the beginning of the “war on terror.” It’s not as if Americans suddenly trusted Democrats on security issues; it is that they allowed themselves to privilege economic issues–where Democrats have long enjoyed the advantage.

So there’s the conundrum. Talk tough and reach for your revolver often, and Americans might let you craft their healthcare, education and family-leave policies. Speak sensibly about foreign policy, and even if they agree with you, they’ll go for the guy with the gun.