By Jeremy D. Rosner
This is shaping up to be the third consecutive election that will turn on national security. Yet 2006 looks very different from 2002 and 2004. President Bush and his party have succeeded in raising the salience of terrorism and Iraq; yet they appear to be in deep electoral trouble, and possibly heading for watershed losses. What gives?
To be sure, the answer goes beyond national security, which is hardly the only issue at play, and in many ways and many races, not even the dominant issue. Polling by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for Democracy Corps shows that a 55-40 percent majority are more interested in hearing what the candidates say about the financial pressures on average voters than about security and terrorism. Moreover, recent visits to various states with key campaigns confirm the conclusion of a recent Washington Post article, that local rather than national issues are dominating the debates in a number of congressional races.1 And it appears that the Foley scandal will have a major impact in the closing weeks, further souring feelings about the Republican Congress to all-time lows.
Yet, apart from the scandals and domestic issues, there are genuinely different dynamics at work on national security this cycle, and Democrats need to get them right if they are to win back Congress and — even more important — the public’s confidence that we can be trusted to protect the country.
The GOP’s efforts to define this race around national security could not have been more forceful or blatant. The extended 9/11 commemorations. Bush’s series of high-profile speeches on terror and Iraq. Tagging Democrats as “cut and run” and “soft.” Forcing pre-election votes on partisan-styled legislation on terrorist interrogation and surveillance. And a slough of GOP ads in key races attacking Democrats on those two issues, including swift-boat-like attack ads in the Ohio Senate race from the shadowy Republican “527” group Progress for America.
Republicans aren’t wrong to pin their hopes on the national security card; as they well understand, it’s about the only card they have left to play. And it is having an impact in some races. For example, Rep. Nancy Johnson (CT-5) has run ads on the terrorist surveillance program that test strongly in our recent focus groups.
Yet mostly the Republican focus on national security seems to be falling flat. For every Nancy Johnson, there are other Republican candidates, such as her Connecticut colleague Rep. Chris Shays (CT-4) who have distanced themselves from the President on Iraq. Key GOP hawks like Rep. Curt Weldon (PA-7) and Republicans with solid security credentials like Rep. Heather Wilson (AZ-1), appear to be in real trouble. And a range of public polls show that Democrats have closed most of the gap they suffered in recent years on national security, and on some more recent measures have fully drawn even with the GOP.
Five related factors are most responsible for blunting if not wholly foiling the Republicans’ national-security-centered strategy.
First, and above all, Iraq. The Administration’s incompetence on counter-insurgency and reconstruction has moved the conflict to the brink of civil war, while its serial deceptions have emptied the reserves of public trust they once enjoyed. Iraq is now the public’s top voting concern, and those who are focused on the issue lean sharply Democratic. The leaked National Intelligence Estimate and Bob Woodward’s new book, combined with the continuing carnage on the ground, helped renew public outrage and erase the President’s post-9/11 bump. In many ways, this year’s congressional election is shaping up to be a public referendum on this deeply troubled war.
Second, the President’s effort to conflate Iraq with the war on terror backfired — in part by succeeding too well. Democracy Corps polling shows that the more the President talked about terror in September and October, the more the public became focused on Iraq, while the level citing terror as the key issue actually fell. By lumping the war on terror and Iraq together, the President actually diminished his edge on the former, rather than strengthening his position on the latter.
Third, partisanship. Voters increasingly recognized and resented that the President was trying to use a real concern, the threat of Islamic jihadists, in a phony, divisive, partisan way. That Republican tactic worked pretty well in 2002 and 2004, but voters have now tired of it and begun resenting it. An August Democracy Corps poll revealed this was the second strongest complaint about Bush and the GOP on national security, and voters respond strongly to Democratic arguments that Republicans set up their late-session bills on wiretapping and interrogation in ways that were needlessly partisan and divisive.
Fourth, Republican divisions. The Bush/Cheney/Rove plan was to use the weeks after Labor Day to frame Democrats as weak on security. Instead, those weeks became defined by Republicans divided on security. As Sen. John McCain, Colin Powell, and a parade of other Republicans and military leaders criticized the original Bush bill on detainee interrogation — for abrogating the Geneva Conventions, endangering our troops, and undermining our moral standing in the war on terror — all contrasts between Republicans and Democrats faded into the background. Although the White House finally caved to many of McCain’s demands (even as McCain also dropped his principled objections in indefensible ways) and finally got the mostly-party-line vote it wanted, it left Republican candidates hard-pressed to argue that only Democrats had reservations about the Bush direction.
Fifth, the Democrats did a better job than in past cycles of recruiting candidates with strong national security credentials. Rep. Rahm Emanuel and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee he chairs recruited dozens of candidates with strong security credentials, such as Tammy Duckworth, an Army helicopter pilot who lost both legs in Iraq, and retired Vice Admiral Joe Sestak, who has pulled even with Pennsylvania’s Weldon. The same is true on the Senate side; witness the gains by Vietnam War hero and former Navy Secretary Jim Webb in his race against incumbent Virginia Sen. George Allen. (OK, “macaca” and Allen’s string of other weird revelations played a role here, but Webb’s military credentials helped.) Not all the vets Democrats recruited made it through the primaries, and in some cases their military service has been less important than pure voter anger over Iraq, but in a few cases having veterans in the race was a major factor, and the move generally reflects a newfound Democratic confidence around associating the party with the military.
These factors create an historic opportunity for Democrats to get heard on national security issues and to transform long-standing perceptions of how the two parties compare. Yet, like all opportunities, this one contains some big dangers. If Democrats are going to win in 2006 and beyond, here are some challenges they need to confront.
- Don’t duck national security; welcome the debate and engage it. Some Democratic consultants argue that Democrats should avoid talking about national security as much as possible. Echoing advice that some other Democratic consultants have pushed, pollster Vic Fingerhut recently argued in the Washington Post that Democratic candidates should “stay away from foreign policy in favor of domestic economic issues.”2 This is stunningly and dangerously bad advice. It is akin to saying that you shouldn’t kick the one remaining leg out from under an offending table because it’s obviously the strongest one. Think how much stronger shape Democratic challenger Chris Murphy might be in in his CT-5 race against Nancy Johnson if he had not let her sharp attack ad on the terror surveillance issue go unanswered for over a week. Moreover, recent polling shows that Democrats only gain when they engage on these issues; in the August Democracy Corp poll, after voters were led through a long and balanced national security debate, the Democrats’ lead expanded, from a 5 point margin to an 8 point lead. This year, Democrats should be welcoming the national security debate and jumping on every opportunity to engage it — not to the exclusion of domestic and economic issues, but with the confidence it can supplement their efforts on these traditional areas of Democratic strength.
Fortunately, more and more Democrats seem to understand this, as evidenced by the strong criticisms of the Bush Administration by a range of Democratic leaders after North Korea’s claim to have conducted its first nuclear test. Our latest Democracy Corps poll shows their instincts are right: even in the 49 most competitive GOP-held districts, more voters see the North Korean claim to be a sign of problems with the Bush national security policy, rather than evidence that we need the Republicans running our national security in the face of a dangerous world.
- Don’t just attack performance on Iraq; also show we have a better way to fight terror. Democrats gain ground when they strongly critique the administration for “mis-managing” Iraq and letting us become “bogged down” in a religious war with no plan and no end in sight. But voters really open up when Democrats combine this with a positive sense of how we offer “a better way to fight terror.” Tangible ideas like implementing 100 percent of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations resonate strongly and create a clearer sense that this is about protecting the future, not just re-litigating the past. Most powerful of all, in many ways, is a longer-sighted Democratic commitment to slash America’s dependence on foreign oil, which voters correctly see as lying at the intersection of the country’s national security, economic, and environmental problems.
- Don’t let anti-Bush reflexes undermine Democrats’ heritage of internationalism. Over the longer term, Democrats can only retain national leadership and the public’s trust if we promote a strong, idealistic, and outward-looking vision of America’s purposes in the world. Anti-Bush passion may be enough to drive big gains in 2006. But Democrats cannot afford to let anti-Bushism morph into anti-internationalism. For example, it is troubling that, according to a poll conducted by the German Marshall Fund, a majority of Democrats — the party that helped bring down apartheid in South Africa and Pinochet in Chile — now rejects the idea of promoting democracy abroad. Similarly, there are worrisome signs that many Democrats now doubt our ability to improve the world; in the August Democracy Corps survey only a 49-46 percent plurality of Democrats agreed that “America’s power is generally a force for good in the world,” and fully 60 percent of liberal Democrats chose the alternative statement, that “America’s power generally does more harm than good when we act abroad.” As The New Republic’s Peter Beinart and others have argued, it will be important for Democratic leaders over the coming months and years to push back against such beliefs and to mobilize support within the party’s base for a serious international agenda that includes combating jihadist ideology and violence, stemming WMD proliferation, strengthening NATO and our other alliances, supporting the spread of liberal democracy and human rights, and tackling global environmental and humanitarian challenges.
If Democrats follow these steps, 2006 could well be remembered as not only the year when the Bush politicization of national security finally fell flat, but also as the year when the Democratic Party began to convince voters they offer a better path for securing America in a world full of new dangers and opportunities.
Jeremy Rosner is Senior Vice President at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic polling and political consulting firm; he served as a senior staff member on the Clinton National Security Council, and as Special Adviser to President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright for NATO Enlargement Ratification.
1Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza, “In Close Races, Local Issues Still Dominate,” The Washington Post, September 29, 2006, p. A1.