(NOTE: This item was originally posted at The Daily Strategist on November 12, 2007)
As a Veterans Day meditation, I thought it might be a good idea to take a fresh look at one of the most contentious subjects in intra-party discussions: How Democrats can clearly differentiate themselves from Republicans on national security issues without falling into the “weak on defense” stereotypes conservatives have spent many years and billions of dollars promoting.
To make a very long story short, there have been at least five basic strategic takes on this subject among Democrats in recent years:
1) Ignore national security as “enemy territory” and focus on maximizing Democratic advantages on domestic issues (the default position of Democratic congressional campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s).
2) Agree with Republican positions on national security to “take them off the table” and then seek to make elections turn on domestic issues where Democrats have an advantage (the Dick Gephardt strategy for congressional Dems in 2002 and for his own presidential campaign in 2004; also common among Democrats running for office in conservative areas).
3) Vociferously oppose Republican positions on national security (and particularly the use of military force) in order to convey “strength,” on the theory that “weakness” is the real message of conservative “weak on defense” attacks (a common assumption among bloggers and activists arguing that a single-minded focus on ending the Iraq War is a sufficient national security message).
(4) Oppose Republican positions on national security while focusing on Democratic respect for, and material support for, “the troops” and veterans, on the theory that a lack of solidarity with the armed services is the real message of conservative “undermining our troops” attacks (a common theme in the Kerry 2004 campaign and in post-2004 Democratic messaging).
(5) Find ways to compete with Republicans on national security without supporting their policies and positions (e.g., the 2002-2004 Clark/Graham “right idea, wrong target” criticisms of the Iraq invasion as distracting and undermining the legitimate fight against terrorists).
There are obviously variations on and combinations of all five strategies, and one could add two relatively marginal approaches: the “anti-imperialist” position that explicitly denies the value of a strong national security posture, and the occasional suggestion that Democrats should “move to the right” of Republicans by supporting military actions more fervently than the opposition.
This entire subject was brought to the forefront of the Democratic presidential contest over the weekend by Barack Obama’s well-received Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech, which, inter alia, criticized Democrats (implicitly, Hillary Clinton) for failing to maintain partisan differentiation on national security:
I am running for president because I am sick and tired of Democrats thinking that the only way to look tough on national security by talking and acting and voting like George Bush Republicans. When I am this party’s nominee, my opponent will not be able to say I voted for the war in Iraq or gave Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran or that I support Bush/Cheney policies of not talking to people we don’t like.
This rap is obviously a direct appeal to those Democrats who believe HRC is guilty of strategy #2, and also to those who favor strategy #3. But Obama also makes a gesture towards strategy #5 by going on to say:
I will finish the fight against Al Qaeda. And I will lead the world to combat the common threats of the 21st century – nuclear weapons and terrorism; climate change and poverty; genocide and disease.
The hard thing about strategy #5 is that it’s complicated, requiring an overall vision of U.S. foreign policy and defense strategy that is difficult to sharply and simply convey while maintaining partisan differentiation. The tendency to simply substitute “diplomacy” for “use of force” in dealing with every conceivable security challenge arguably plays into Republican taunts that Democrats are allergic to the use of force, period.
But there is one national security topic on which Democrats have a built-in advantage wherein they could not only conveys “toughness” and seriousness on national security, but also rebut years of Republican attacks: military readiness. As Steve Benen points out today at TalkingPointsMemo, the “Clinton hollowed out the military” myth was not only a staple of Bush’s 2000 campaign, and a subtext of attacks on Kerry’s defense record in 2004, but is still being monotonously repeated by 2008 Republican candidates:
Bush has stretched the military to the breaking point, and Republican presidential candidates want to emphasize rebuilding the Armed Forces as part of their platforms. But to acknowledge the incredible strains on the current military is to implicitly hold the president to account for his irresponsible policies.
What to do? Blame Clinton, of course.
For Democrats, talking about rebuilding the U.S. military in acknowledgement of an era of asymmetric warfare, and the limits on military power we’ve painfully learned in Iraq, is a good way simultaneously to draw attention to Bush’s assault on military readiness (a source of considerable ongoing grief within the military itself), to deride the national security “thinking” behind the Iraq War and the drive to war with Iran, and to identify with “the troops.” That doesn’t necessarily mean support for an increased defense spending or even an expanded active military. But it does clearly indicate that a Democratic commander-in-chief will pursue a defense strategy markedly different from the GOP contenders, who are still trying to win unwinnable wars (and perhaps start others) based on the “world’s sole superpower” illusion of the immediate post-Cold War period.
The political futility, and unprincipled nature, of Democratic strategies #1 and #2 on national security are pretty apparent by now. Strategy #4 is a good defensive measure, but often sounds evasive, and on occasion runs the risk of treating troops as victims rather than as heroes. Perhaps strategy #3 will work politically, but it’s hard to imagine a Democratic candidate getting through an entire general election campaign saying little or nothing about national security other than the desire to reverse every single decision made by George W. Bush. So strategy #5 might well be essential, as well as prinicipled (giving voters a clear idea of what a Democratic commander-in-chief would do, not just undo), and military readiness might be a good place to start a message of “differentiation with strength.”
A Clean Break in The Atlantic
November 13 post
I’d highly recommend Ed Kilgore’s thoughts on different approaches to the politics of national security available to Democrats (though I think his #3 is something of a straw man, whereas #2 and #4 are very real and vibrant strains of thought) and the best way for going forward. What I would add, though, is that I’m not sure how available Ed’s number five really is to those Democrats who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq back in October 2002. Ed characterizes the best way forward as:
Find ways to compete with Republicans on national security without supporting their policies and positions (e.g., the 2002-2004 Clark/Graham “right idea, wrong target” criticisms of the Iraq invasion as distracting and undermining the legitimate fight against terrorists).
I’ll call it Clark/Dean because I think Dean’s been unfairly maligned on this score and Graham wound up articulating the really crazy view that we should go to war with Hezbollah. But old fights aside, we could also call it the John Kerry at his best strategy:
Saddam Hussein didn’t attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaida attacked us. And when we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, 1,000 of his cohorts with him in those mountains. With the American military forces nearby and in the field, we didn’t use the best trained troops in the world to go kill the world’s number one criminal and terrorist.
The trouble is that this kind of message, nicely re-enforced by the fact that Rand Beers resigned from the Bush administration in protest over the president’s Iraq strategy and wound up working for Kerry, cut against Kerry’s actually record. Just a few sentences later, Kerry was shifting into an HRC-like explanation of why his vote in favor of authorizing the war didn’t mean he favored the war:
He also said Saddam Hussein would have been stronger. That is just factually incorrect. Two-thirds of the country was a no-fly zone when we started this war. We would have had sanctions. We would have had the U.N. inspectors. Saddam Hussein would have been continually weakening.
If the president had shown the patience to go through another round of resolution, to sit down with those leaders, say, “What do you need, what do you need now, how much more will it take to get you to join us?” we’d be in a stronger place today.
This is, in a vacuum, plausible. It’s not, however, consistent with the strategic focus argument since handling Iraq Kerry’s way (recall that “there was a right way to hold Saddam Hussein accountable and there was a wrong way”) still would have entailed the shift in focus away from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, and Pakistan and toward Iraq. Consequently, while I think this sort of argument is a great one for Barack Obama and other challengers like Jim Webb who can easily adopt it, folks who backed the war aren’t that well-positioned to do so because the strategic focus argument isn’t really consistent with trying to wriggle away from a pro-war record by citing the manipulation of intelligence.
All of which is to say that while someone like Dennis Kucinich who opposed the Iraq War because of an extremely dovish overall outlook would still have a very hard time winning an election, someone like Webb or Obama or Dean or Clark who can plausibly claim prescient judgment about what’s become an extremely unpopular war is just in a much fundamentally stronger position to go up against a candidate (at either the presidential or congressional level) who’s be a die-hard war supporter but not someone who was personally involved in the well-known Rumsfeld-era cavalcade of ineptitude.
The Democrats Get A Moment in Ezra Klein: Tomorrow’s Media Conspiracy Today
November 14 post
I’ve been meaning to link to Ed Kilgore’s taxonomy of Democratic national security approaches for a few days now, but am just finally getting around to it. So here. Kilgore is very trenchant on the failed strategies Democrats use, from the diversionary efforts to, as Tom Frank once said on a panel with me, refocus “national security on economic insecurity,” to the attempts to extinguish the differences and win through mimicry. But I think Kilgore’s favored alternative, which is essentially “find ways to compete with Republicans on national security without supporting their policies and positions,” is a bit easier said than done. And we’re only now reaching a point where it even can be done.
The most politically salient foreign policy fact of the past few years was that no Democrat had a visceral connection to 9/11. George W. Bush was in the White House, Rudy Giuliani running New York. Republicans owned the immediate response, and not simply because of messaging capabilities. The owned it because they occupied the relevant positions of responsibility. Had Gore been president on that day, it would have been entirely different. Democratic ineptitude played a part in their post-9/11 losses, but even a stronger, more sophisticated party would have been in the backseat.
Now that Bush’s policies have proven a resounding failure, and now that foreign policy authority isn’t entirely contingent on proximity to 9/11, Democrats are getting an opportunity to prove their own vision. But they won’t be able to cement anything until they occupy the White House. Proving yourself on foreign policy requires action, not just rhetoric, and only the executive can engage in that action. So I’d add a sixth to Ed’s list — occupying the White House and proving capable of adeptly responding to foreign policy crises. That they didn’t have the Oval office doesn’t excuse Democrats’ failures in the opposition, but it’s part of why they’ve been unable to distinguish themselves on the subject. When it comes to foreign policy, voters have a show, don’t tell, attitude.
More On National Security Options For Democrats at The Democratic Strategist
November 14 post
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 above and 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.