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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Partisan Differention on National Security

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.”

6 comments on “Partisan Differention on National Security

  1. Matthew Cowan on

    The whole debate on the military is run on the GOP’s frame. They call the military “defense.” Its not “defense.” Nobody is going to militarily attack us. Nobody even wants to.
    Instead of using the GOP frame, Democrats should turn the discussion to America’s role in the world. World policeman is very unpopular now but the GOP are stuck with it. An approach to security that involves groups of nations or the UN is preferred by voters, as long as America plays a leading role.
    Once the issue of what the military is needed for is resolved, then cutting military spending would be easier if we have enough to do the job we’ve chosen.
    The DLC and others can convince Democratic insiders with the “weak on defense” hoax. Polls that ask voters what their top concerns are barely mention increasing defense spending.
    Very soon a choice will need to be made between Medicare and funding the insane weapons buildup and research that is underway. If Democrats choose the military, they’ll lose forever.

  2. stephennyc on

    First, not since WWII has the “primary qualification for President among a majority of voters is a belief that he or she can and will do what it takes to defend the nation”. Mostly, domestic issues are what determine Presidential elections. But about a Democratic stance re national security, a not clearly stated option is what Hillary is doing: move to the middle and push Republicans further right. And all the Republican candidates (save Paul) are running hard to the right on Iraq. They started out on the unpopular side of the issue, not, I believe, from principle (except for McCain), but for political expediency, i.e., for support from the conservative base. I think Obama is also trying to maintain a “middle” position in preparation for the general election. Edwards is trying to stay just left of them, because his need is more immediate, i.e., he has to concentrate harder on the primary election. And it’s working: For months, most polls have shown that Democrat positions have eliminated the advantage Republicans have traditionally had on national security with voters.

  3. Bart on

    Usually, the primary qualification for President among a majority of voters is a belief that he or she can and will do what it takes to defend the nation.
    Prior to Vietnam, the Democrats were the party which fought and won wars. This was the party of the Greatest Generation. Consequently, they had no problem holding their own in presidential elections. The GOP had to run the Supreme Allied Commander to take back the White House.
    However, Vietnam changed the Democrats into the party which refuses to fight or loses wars. Consequently, they cannot muster a majority of the popular vote for President because they are not trusted to protect the nation’s security.
    None of Mr. Kilgore’s categories quite puts its finger on this problem.
    Until a Democrat presidential candidate can stand up and say that he or she will send in the Army and the Marines to fight a ground war anywhere, I would suggest that the GOP owns the issue of national security and the White House.

  4. neoconx on

    choosing a clever strategy does little good when, through national and world events, your opponents strategy has been previously elevated to the level of common sense
    you have the same problem with your tax ‘strategy’…
    and your immigration ‘strategy’ as well….

  5. Keith Roberts on

    The Republican position on defense has two parts: (1) Spend without limit, controls or rationality; (2) Use force as the first solution to international problems. The Democratic position should be the opposite: (1) Spend appropriately, rationally, and with accountability; (2) Use force only when necessary for protection or the achievement of vital interests, and all other approaches are clearly unsuccessful.

  6. Craig on

    I think that the trick to 5 is that it involves being criticized from the left as well as the right. Clinton’s vote on Kyle-Lieberman is trying this approach even if it is wrong on the merits. I think that vote will be very useful for her in the general in as much as it makes people think that she is a little more hawkish than most Democrats. It will be interesting to see if that same perception hurts her in Iowa.


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