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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Military Strategy for Democrats – Part 1 — How the Democrats Can Argue with McCain and the Republicans about Military Strategy and Win

James Vega is a strategic marketing consultant whose clients include major nonprofit organizations and high-tech firms
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I. Understanding the “pro-military, but anti-Bush’s war” voters
Because of the number and variety of questions they ask on a single topic, the surveys produced by Democracy Corps provide Democrats with data of unique value. They make it possible to begin to visualize some of the larger political perspectives into which voters specific opinions are organized.
The recent D-Corps survey and analysis of opinion on National Security, for example, makes it possible to get a feel for the size of two broad groups — the firmly partisan anti-war Democratic “base” voters and the firmly partisan pro-Bush’s war, pro-military” Republican “base” voters.
On the one hand, about 27% of the respondents in the D-Corps survey agreed with every one of the following five statements
Firmly Partisan Anti-War Democrats
• The Democrats will do a better job “insuring a strong military”
• The Democrats, more than Republicans “respect the military”
• The surge was “a mistake”
• In Iraq, America should “reduce the number of troops”
• Bush’s policies have “undermined America’s security”
On the other hand, about 45% of the respondents agreed with all five of the following statements
Firmly Partisan Pro-Bush’s War, Pro-Military Republicans
• The Republicans will do a better job of “insuring a strong military”
• The Republicans, more than the Democrats, “Respect the military”
• The surge is helping to “win the war”
• America must “Stay the course”, “finish the job” and “achieve stability”
• Bush’s policies have “increased America’s security”
The most important fact that emerges from this comparison is the very substantial number of respondents – about 30% — who do not fall in either category. They agreed with some of the five statements but not others.
But what do these “inconsistent” voters actually think? Among the respondents to the D-Corps survey as a whole, the main distinction was between responses to the first two questions and the final three.
On the one hand, only about 27% of all respondents to the D-Corps survey thought the Democrats would be better at “insuring a strong military” or “respecting the military”. About 55% thought the Republicans would be better.
In contrast, about 54% of all respondents agreed that “the surge was a mistake”, that “we should reduce the number of troops” and that “Bush’s policies have reduced America’s security”. Only about 44% thought we should “stay the course”, that “the surge was working” and that Bush’s policies have “increased America’s security”
In short, while a majority of Americans think Republicans are more favorable to the military, many are also strongly opposed to Bush’s policies. It is this significant “pro-military, but anti-Bush’s war” group that is the critical swing vote on national security.

As the authors of the D-Corps analysis note:

“The imperative for Democrats is to repair the trust deficit the electorate has regarding Democrats when it comes to their use of the military instrument…It is important to understand the nature of this challenge clearly. It is partly about the willingness to use force… But the other part of the problem, the new survey suggests, is simply about Democrats’ familiarity and affinity with the military.”

One source of the problem lies in the estrangement between liberal-progressives and the military, an estrangement that became deeply rooted during the Vietnam War. As William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force who has taught at the Air Force Academy and Naval Postgraduate School has noted:

…the traditional liberal/progressive critique often begins by citing the insidious influence of Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex,” throwing in for good measure terms like “atrocity,” “imperialist,” “reactionary,” and similar pejoratives. But what’s interesting here is that this is often where their critique also ends. The military and its influence are considered so tainted, so baneful that within progressive circles there’s a collective wringing of hands, even a reflexive turning of backs, as if our military were truly from Mars…”

This is deeply entwined with the issue of social class. As Astore continues:

“Our military remains deeply rooted in the broad middle-and working-class elements of society. Our Ivy League schools, our white-shoe law firms, Boston’s Beacon Hill, New York’s Upper West Side have little presence in it. Yet everywhere you go in blue-collar, small-town and rural America, you bump into ordinary people who know someone in the military: a nephew, a cousin, a close buddy from high school, even, these days, the girl next door.”

There is a simple social indicator that suggests the profound depth of this divide. Few liberals and progressives can name any of their close friends or co-workers who have a framed photograph of an earnest-looking young man or woman in a uniform proudly displayed in their living rooms. Among working class and other ordinary Americans, on the other hand, it would be very difficult to find any who do not have a friend or neighbor who has or has had such a picture on their wall.
The most basic and deep-seated attitudes of ordinary Americans toward the military are generally rooted in a complex and idiosyncratic mixture of personal experiences. For some the military was their path to an education or the first steps in adult life. For others, their attitudes were shaped by a father, brother, family member or close friend who served in the military and perhaps even lost his life in a war.
The way to cut through this cognitive Gordian knot is to recognize that people’s attitudes toward the military can be seen as composed of two distinct subcomponents – a value system and a conceptual framework. To understand them, the key is to consider them separately.
Most Americans are familiar with the positive aspects of the military value system. It includes patriotism, self-discipline, bravery, technical mastery, cool-headedness and a commitment to something larger than money. Many anti-war Democrats may perceive the flag waving ads for Marines that are shown in the movie theaters and on TV as corny and manipulative, but for their intended working class audience the values and outlook they express are profoundly real and inspiring.
But the military value system goes deeper. As one sociological analysis noted:

“…working people also feel an additional psychic bond with the men and women in the armed forces because the soldiers uphold very deeply held and distinctly working-class values: ruggedness and bravery, teamwork and group solidarity, loyalty, heroism and self-sacrifice. In the rest of American culture these virtues are given a much lower value than intellectual ability, ambition, competitiveness and the achievement of material success. For high-school-educated young men and women who are often not “successful” in these latter terms, the armed forces provide them with the opportunity to be seen as role models and heroes to their families, friends and communities.
When working-class Americans refer to “our boys in uniform,” they are expressing an intensely felt emotional truth as well as a metaphorical one — that the soldiers and other personnel – men and women – are not only literally their children but are also the representatives of some of the best values of their culture.”

Liberals and progressives are, of course, also acutely aware of negative aspects of the military value system – enforced conformity, rigid obedience and the glorification of violence — characteristics dramatically portrayed in films like Stanley Kubrick’ s “Full Metal Jacket” and “A Few Good Men”. But, even among firm liberals and progressives, there is a recognition that these characteristics are to a very significant degree unavoidable aspects of any military organization, no matter how purely defensive or altruistic its purpose.
Along with a distinct value system, however, the military world also has a distinct conceptual framework – one which is deeply internalized by its participants, but which many liberals and progressives simply do not understand.
At the level of the individual soldier or non-commissioned officer, the most important element of the military perspective is the mission. Higher level officers are taught a more abstract conceptual hierarchy of National Strategy, Military Strategy, Operational Strategy and Tactics, but for most military personnel, there are essentially only two main concepts – the mission and the strategy to accomplish it.
For the vast majority of the men and women serving in the military, since 9/11 their overarching vision of the basic mission in which they are engaged is prevent another terrorist attack on America. No other national goal (e.g. protecting America’s access to Mideast oil, remaking the cultures of the Arab-Persian world) remotely approaches the centrality of this basic mission in their minds. It is this mission, and no other, that inspires young 18 and 19 year olds to enlist in the armed services in the first place and to continue to serve without objection, to make huge personal sacrifices and to endure.
There is virtually no disagreement with this mission among most Americans. It is as close to a national consensus as there is on any subject.
In regard to the military strategy to achieve this goal, on the other hand, there is a vast amount of disagreement, not only among all Americans but within the ranks of the military as well. Various polls of both military personnel and of higher and lower level officers show that the initial consensus that existed in 2001 has now been replaced by widespread sense of disillusionment and strong dissent.
What this suggests for Democratic strategy is self-evident. To win the support of the millions of Americans who consider themselves “pro-military” but disagree with the Bush/Petraeus strategy there are three distinct sub-tasks that must be achieved.
1. Democrats must demonstrate to “pro-military” voters that they sincerely honor and respect the value system of the American military.
2. Democrats must distinguish and clarify to these voters that they completely support what most members of the armed forces see as their basic mission – protecting America from another terrorist attack. They must make clear that this is emphatically not the issue on which Democrats and Republicans disagree.
3. Democrats must make clear that the real argument between Republicans and Democrats lies in the realm of military strategy – that the Republican military strategy is fundamentally flawed and that the Democrats have a better one.
To effectively make this case to the millions of “pro-military” voters, Democrats will have to learn how to do something that is unfamiliar for them. They will have to learn how to express their ideas in the language and framework of military strategy – to win the debate within the “strategic” conceptual framework in which “pro-military” voters want policies regarding Iraq to be discussed.
This is not as difficult as it may first appear. Generals like Wesley Clark do it routinely. The four remaining parts of this analysis, appearing during the rest of this week, will show how it can be done.

One comment on “Military Strategy for Democrats – Part 1 — How the Democrats Can Argue with McCain and the Republicans about Military Strategy and Win

  1. Jim Arkedis on

    This is a well-researched and insightful post — Vega cuts to the heart of Dem’s uneasiness with the military and does an excellent job delving into the supporting psycho-analysis.
    I would make one addition and one modification to Vega’s recommendations, however.
    1. I worry about Vega’s recommendation that progressives “honor and respect the value system of the American military.” I think there is a very fine line here, and most Democratic politicians have fallen on the “pandering” side of it.
    The military views itself as the embodiment of its version of America’s values — self-reliant, competitive, and proud. So, when Dem officials start “supporting the troops” every which way they can think of, I worry that it may actually alient our soldiers because they don’t want to be treated as a charity case.
    In short, Democrats do more for our soliders by honestly questioning when and where they will be deployed as much, if not more so, than vowing to pay for things.
    This funnels into my addition…
    2. Democratic elected officials — at the state, local, or federal level — have to do a better job interacting with the military. The voting public will only become comfortable with progressives and the military by seeing them enthusiastically work with each other on issues that overlap into civilian life.
    This can manifest itself in a variety of forms that have nothing to do with foreign policy — base closures/reassignments, local crime, and anti-military protests, to name a few. These issues show the public that Dem’s are cognizant of their larger communities and its members’ interests. It’s all about building trust — trust between Dems and the services, and the public’s trust that Dems can do so.
    This is a long-term fix, but addresses the core confidence issue and should be undertaken without delay.


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