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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Being Right’s Not Always Enough

My post earlier this week about the important new Democracy Corps survey and analysis on national security as a campaign issue was reinforced and amplified by the invariably clear-eyed Jon Chait yesterday, who warns that the Democratic advantage on Iraq can coexist with a Republican–or at least McCain–advantage on national security generally. Here’s Chait on the broad problem:

Are the Republicans politically suicidal? I don’t think so. The public can oppose you on a specific policy question but still favor you on the issue in general. Richard Nixon was fighting an unpopular war in 1972, but he still crushed George McGovern on foreign policy. Likewise, despite the unpopularity of the Iraq war, John McCain’s general hawkishness might still be an asset for him.

Chait goes on to suggest that the right formula of wrapping opposition to the war with an overall national security posture that allays voter fears of excessive Democratic reluctance to use military force when necessary may have already been signalled by Barack Obama:

Iraq may not be popular, but the general perception (which is not the same thing as reality) that they’re willing to fight the bad guys remains a key positive for the GOP brand. Am I saying the Democrats need to try to mimic Republican positions in order to win? Not at all. A creative approach is needed, and Obama’s combination of dovishness on Iraq and hawkishness on al Qaeda in Pakistan strikes me as probably the best approach.

Whether or not Chait’s right about that assessment of Obama, I certainly share his main argument: you can’t just look at polls about individual issues, domestic or international, and then assume the electorate’s overall candidate preference will mechanically follow who’s right or who’s wrong about the sum of those individual issues. And that’s why Democrats truly do need to start thinking about a “creative” approach to national security that combines being right about Iraq with an overall posture that strikes Americans as being right about the security challenges the country faces going forward.
This can be a highly nuanced exercise. In 2004, John Kerry made hundreds of speeches that made it clear his foreign policy would use America’s full arsenal of military and non-military assets to keep the country safe and improve our strength and prestige. The order of the military and non-military arguments was a subject of constant debate within his campaign, and more often than not, he stressed the value of non-military initiatives before reassuring voters that of course he’d use military force if necessary. His actual platform would not have changed at all had he gone the other way, but the political impact arguably might have been different. The same is true for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
The “creative” approach to national security Chait argues for is pretty much what most Democrats, and both Democratic candidates for president, actually support. But sometimes messaging is more about order and emphasis than overall content, and it would be a good idea for Democrats to start thinking about that even now.

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