By Jeremy D. Rosner
President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Karl Rove went into this year’s election with the same basic play book as in 2002 and 2004: run hard on national security, invoke 9/11, equate Iraq with the war on terror, frame both as with-us-or-against-us choices, use wedge legislation to show Democrats are on the wrong side of that choice.
They ran the play perfectly. But it failed massively. It’s important to understand why Democrats won — not despite the GOP’s focus on national security, but partly because of it — and what our party must do to continue strengthening our profile on national security in the coming months and years.
The pivotal role of national security in the November 7 vote is beyond question. The election was, in large part, a referendum on Iraq. In a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner survey of the 50 most competitive GOP-held districts conducted for Democracy Corps the week before the election, 25 percent of likely voters said Iraq was the single most important issue behind their vote — nearly twice the level for the two next issues, “jobs and the economy,” and “terrorism,” both at 13 percent.
The Edison-Mitofsky exit polls raised some questions about whether Iraq was, in fact, the dominant issue. They reported 36 percent of voters said Iraq was “extremely important” in their vote, the same as for “values issues, such as same-sex marriage or abortion,” and slightly less than the shares for terrorism (39 percent), the economy (39 percent), and “corruption and scandals in government” (41 percent). Yet the exit poll asked these questions serially, rather than as a single choice, which obscures Iraq’s importance.
Indeed, when asked as a forced choice, not only was Iraq the single biggest driver of the vote, but its dominance climbed in importance as Election Day neared. In the Democracy Corps polls, the share citing Iraq as the top issue roughly doubled from June to Election Day while the share of voters citing other issues mostly remained static. The dynamic that was just emerging at the time of my previous article exploded as Election Day neared: by stressing terrorism, President Bush actually focused more attention on Iraq and deepened the public’s anger about his conduct of that conflict.
The growing focus on the mismanaged war in Iraq led voters to reassess their decades-old assumption that Republicans were stronger on national security. For years, Republicans led by 20-30 points or more on this question. But the 2006 exit polls show that Republicans only led by a narrow 7-point 53-46 percent margin among those who said terrorism was an extremely important issue in their vote — still a lead, but nearing parity. By contrast, among those who said Iraq was extremely important, Democrats led by a huge 22-point 60-38 percent margin. Not only was Iraq the dominant voting issue, but it went a long way toward neutralizing the long-time Republican advantage on the broader array of national security issues.
Many of the Democratic candidates who scored the biggest upsets were ones who showcased their opposition to Iraq — rebutting pre-election counsel from some Democratic advisers that national security would inevitably be a losing issue. To cite just one of many examples, in Minnesota’s first congressional district, local high school football coach Tim Walz beat Republican incumbent Gil Gutknecht partly by running an ad with Walz standing in front of his school’s empty football stands, and pointing out that the number of seats was about equal to the number of Americans lost in Iraq. National security was mostly a winning issue for Democrats in 2006.
The anti-Iraq wave did not wash all Republican incumbents away, of course, sparing two I highlighted in my earlier article. In Connecticut, Rep. Chris Shays eked out another term partly by moving away from his earlier defense of the war and becoming more critical of the President. Similarly, Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico won by 875 votes in the NM-1 race despite her profile as a Republican NSC staffer who had backed the war. Yet even in these districts, the Iraq war was a liability that Republicans had to overcome. Virtually the only candidate who featured his support for the war in an ad was Minnesota Senate candidate Mark Kennedy, who went on to lose by about 20 points.
All this underscores something about American attitudes on national security: for the most part, the public views these issues pragmatically, not ideologically. They want national security policies that work. If the US mission in Somalia in the early ’90s had been a resounding success, the public might have felt “nation building” was a great thing; that term only became a conservative epithet because of events. If there were calm in Baghdad today and the Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds were governing peaceably together, then the public might align today behind ideas like pre-emption.
Instead, the public now has deep (and well-founded) doubts that the GOP knows what it is doing in international affairs. The political consequences of that change could be profound. If those new perceptions take root, it could mean that future Democrats could enter national elections without being on the defensive against “bear in the woods” ads, “swift boat” smears, and other attacks on their national security credentials. It could mean that, instead of our party worrying about being tarred as “Defeatocrats” on national security, the GOP might have to worry about being seen as “Refumblicans.”
But the new parity on national security will not endure automatically. November 7 was above all a rejection of the Republicans on Iraq — not an endorsement of any Democratic alternative. And although voters who focused on Iraq tilted Democratic, voters focused on terrorism still opted for the Republicans. A post-election Democracy Corps poll finds that voters still favor the GOP by 13 points on which party “can be trusted to keep America safe.” Even though the White House retains primary control of America’s foreign and military policies, Democrats now have the responsibility to show they have serious ideas that would do more to protect America and improve our standing abroad than would the course Bush has offered.
Congressional Democrats have done a pretty good job of this so far. In the House, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her team have outlined a 100-hours plan that includes implementation of the full recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, something President Bush has resisted. House and Senate leaders have outlined serious ideas on a range of other security initiatives as well, such as stronger steps on non-proliferation and legislation to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.
But the real test will be on Iraq, where Bush’s egregious mismanagement of the war has rendered most worthy goals unreachable and the remaining alternatives unpalatable. Even Henry Kissinger now argues that a military victory in Iraq is no longer possible. We have only bad choices about how to wind down America’s involvement with the least harm to Iraq’s people and our own forces, regional interests, and global reputation.
It would be a welcome relief if the election results and the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group led the Bush White House to seek genuinely bipartisan answers to these agonizing questions. But Bush’s very first post-election move in foreign policy — resubmitting the twice-rebuffed nomination of John Bolton as UN ambassador — signals that Karl Rove’s base strategy remains alive and well, and does not stop at the water’s edge. In the same way, everything we know about this President suggests he will argue that the new Democratic Congress is somehow culpable for the horrific end-game we are already starting to witness in Iraq. His model will be Vietnam, where Republicans managed to assign a good deal of partisan blame to a bipartisan policy failure.
It will be harder to cast Iraq as the Democrats’ doing. This is not a war that spanned administrations of different parties. Despite the war’s initial bipartisan authorization, Iraq belongs to George Bush. He was, as he says, “the decider,” waging this war on his own terms, and exploiting it at home for his own partisan purposes. Democrats — including those of us who supported the war’s initiation — did not passively assent to Bush’s mismanagement of its conduct, but instead vocally condemned each strategic failure, from his rejection of the military’s call for more troops, to his refusal to involve allies, to his lack of a serious plan for post-Saddam reconstruction, to his insistence on interrogation techniques that undermined our moral standing.
Yet Democrats will still need to take care not to give Bush and his team any easy pretext for shifting responsibility for the outcome in Iraq. The new Democratic Congress needs to provide the vigorous oversight of the war their Republican predecessors never provided. But they also need to avoid pushing for funding cut-offs that could be cast as undermining the troops (and which would in any event merely be veto bait). And they need to push for an end-game that moves gradually, doing what we can to build up Iraq’s infrastructure and professionalize its military and police forces, acknowledging that we bear some moral responsibility for Iraq’s growing chaos.
Over the next two years, Democrats need to make several principles clear at every turn. First, whether measured in floor time or rhetoric, we place as much emphasis on national security as domestic priorities. Second, we offer a broad program for fighting terror and strengthening our security that goes beyond opposition to Bush’s policies in Iraq. Third, we have a long-term commitment to rebuilding our over-stretched military, caring for this war’s veterans, and creating stronger relations with the military leadership. Fourth, despite the costs and setbacks in Iraq, we remain committed to an outward-looking and idealistic foreign policy that promotes the expansion of democracy, human rights, global environmental quality, trade, and economic opportunity for the world’s poorest citizens.
If the new Democratic majorities in Congress can act on these principles over the next two years, America will be more secure, and our party will continue to stand on stronger ground as we face what is likely to be America’s fourth consecutive national security election in 2008.
Jeremy D. Rosner is Senior Vice President of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic strategy and polling firm in Washington. He served as a senior staff member on the staff of President Clinton’s National Security Council, and as Special Adviser to the President and Secretary of State for NATO Enlargement Ratification. He is a contributing co-author with PPI’s Will Marshall for With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
By Jeremy D. Rosner