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.”