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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

More On National Security Options For Democrats

There have been two reactions to my earlier post on “Partisan Differentiation on National Security” that are well worth noting and discussing.
The first, by Matt Yglesias at the Atlantic site, agrees with my basic framework but suggests that only those Democrats who opposed the Iraq War are positioned to make what he calls the “strategic focus” argument, which is my Option #5 (“Find ways to compete with Republicans on national security without supporting their policies and positions.”). He uses the Kerry campaign as an example of the difficulty of reconciling a pro-war vote–even if it’s now rationalized as justified by false intelligence and other lies from the Bush administration–with an argument that Iraq and the policies behind it reflected a dangerous diversion from real national security needs.
I obviously agree that a candidate like Obama–who opposed the war–or even one like Edwards–who now says he was just flatly wrong in supporting it–will have an easier time here. But to the extent that the national debate now is more about what to do in Iraq and elsewhere going forward, than about the original Iraq decision, I don’t think candidates like HRC and Biden are incapable of making a successful argument that the Republicans are fatally mired in a series of delusions about our actual security needs that must be abandoned. Yes, they will be vulnerable to the flip-flop attack that damaged Kerry so much, but the rejoinder that Kerry adopted after (unfortunately) the election isn’t bad: it’s better to flip-flop than to flop, and continue to flop.
On a smaller point, Matt thinks my option #3–conveying “strength” by acting “tough” in opposition to the war–is a straw man. I disagree. It was over and over again cited in the runup to 2006 by countless bloggers as an argument for making an end to the war the sole Democratic message item on national security. Sure, a lot of them went on to say that Iraq was getting in the way of capturing Osama or securing Afghanistan, but the basic thrust was that the main vulnerability of Democrats was looking “weak” towards Bush rather than “weak” towards terrorists or other real threats.
Meanwhile, Ezra Klein makes an excellent point by suggesting that Democrats may never succeed in fully shaking the “weak on national security” label until a Democrat successfully deals with a foreign policy crisis as commander-in-chief. This comports with my strong belief that Bush’s hole-card in 2004 was the simple fact that there had not been another 9/11 on his watch, leading a lot of voters to conclude “he must be doing something right.” Recall that Bill Clinton went a long way towards defusing long-standing perceptions of Democrats as a “big government” party while in office–indeed, perceptions of government itself improved significantly. Likewise, a Democratic president who keeps America relatively safe–while restoring our much-damaged prestige in the world–will do more than any candidate or Congress could ever do to dispel negative perceptions of Democrats on national security.

One comment on “More On National Security Options For Democrats

  1. Cugel on

    “Meanwhile, Ezra Klein makes an excellent point by suggesting that Democrats may never succeed in fully shaking the “weak on national security” label until a Democrat successfully deals with a foreign policy crisis as commander-in-chief.”

    I almost don’t know how to respond to such a statement. The major thing that divides democratic voters from Republicans is that Democrats are not in favor of an American world empire imposed by military force. If Democrats have to prove they are “just as tough” – i.e. just as trigger happy and willing to use unilateral American military power to dominate other countries, then we have already lost the most important point. And that is putting an END to these endless wars!
    We NEED a President who will promise to be “weak on national security”, who will make it explicit that he WON’T start another war!
    The American people are sick of paying the price for the ambitions of our leaders. That’s why you see over 60% of them saying that the war wasn’t worth fighting. And that’s why every new war has to be sold, however disingenuously, as a “defense from attack” by hostile foreign powers. There is just ZERO willingness to fight for “our strategic interests.” The American people are willing to support a war if they believe it is DIRECTLY in our self-defense from foreign attack, and absolutely NOT otherwise. And every politician knows it.
    That’s where the entire “tough” on foreign policy issues break down. When Democrats are being urged to “prove their toughness” is to prove to the entire D.C. insider elites, including virtually the entire MSM is that they are “serious” meaning that they are not “afraid” to attack other countries in an attempt to dominate the world, and especially the strategically important oil-producing regions by military force.
    That’s why none of the major Democratic candidates are willing to promise that they would promise to bring ALL American troops home from Iraq by 2013!
    What other possible justification could there be for refusing to promise to return all American troops in Iraq by the end of their terms in 5 years time, but a commitment to permanently occupy Iraq? And what purpose could that serve, other than to attempt to dominate the oil producing region by brute military force? (Production Sharing Agreements anyone?)
    Alan Greenspan was more candid than any major politician from either party is willing to be. Of course the war was always about oil. If the major export of Iraq was bananas does anybody think we would be fighting there?

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