By Marc Grinberg, Rachel Kleinfeld, and Matthew Spence
With two months before elections, Democrats are in high spirits. As the Republican-controlled White House wages a war in Iraq that a majority of voters believe was a poorly run mistake, the Republican Party’s favorability rating has slipped to eight points below Democrats’ and falling. Polls for individual Congressional candidates are putting Democrats as many as ten points ahead of their Republican opponents.1 Americans feel our nation’s image in the world has fallen, and the country is headed in the wrong direction.2 Some are already referring to the Democratic House leader as Madame Speaker.
But this is not a description of the run-up to this November’s election. It is a troubling flashback to two years ago. At this point in the last election cycle, Democrats appeared poised for victory. But three months later, on November 3, 2004, Democrats awoke to find a government with even more Republicans in power than the day before. George W. Bush became the first presidential candidate in 16 years to win a majority of the popular vote. The GOP gained four seats in both the House and the Senate, leaving Democrats ten seats down in the Senate and twenty-nine seats short in the House.
What happened? Why did 2004 not produce the return to Democratic power that so many expected? And given that today’s poll numbers and predictions are eerily similar to those of two years ago, what can we learn to ensure that 2006 is not a return to 2004?3
In 2004, it turned out that national security was a litmus test. Voters may have expressed strong concerns about traditional Democratic issues such as jobs and health care, but when alone in the voting booth, they cast their ballot for the Democrat only if the candidate met the national security acid test–that is, if they were convinced the candidate would keep them safe. In 2004 exit polling, 49% of voters said Bush was the only one they trusted to handle terrorism–and nearly all of those (97%) voted for the President. In other words, only 1.5% of voters didn’t trust Kerry to handle terrorism but voted for him anyway. If voters listed terrorism as their most important issue, they voted for George W. Bush 86% of the time.4 Even when voters disagreed with specific Republican foreign policies, they trusted Republicans to ensure their safety. They did not trust Democrats.
Democratic leadership in the House and Senate–as well as future Presidential contenders–recognizes that it must address this national security gap, and is trying to do so. Last spring, Congressional Democrats introduced “Real Security,” a Democratic alternative to Republican policies.5 On September 7, 2006 Senator Harry Reid and nine other Democratic Senators introduced a 600-page bill, the Real Security Act of 2006. The emerging conventional wisdom is that Democrats have already begun to overcome their security deficit. A Wall Street Journal cover story earlier this month read recent public opinion data to proclaim as much. Polls put support for the Iraq War at a mere thirty percent and give Democrats an eight-point lead when asked which party will lead better both on Iraq, and in foreign policy more broadly.6 A majority of Americans feel that it is time for a change of course in the Bush Administration’s foreign policy.7
Foreign Policy Is Not the Same As National Security
But a deeper problem persists. Surprisingly, while Americans disagree with Republicans on specific policies, such as Iraq, and believe that Republican foreign policy is wrong-headed, Democrats are still not winning their trust on national security. While voters favor Democrats on “soft” issues that Democrats see as tied to good national security, such as “building respect for America,” “strengthening relations with our allies,” and “advancing human rights and democracy abroad,” the American public does not trust us on the “hard” issues that many Americans see as the core of national security. When asked which party they trusted to “ensure a strong military,” “combat terrorism” and be “decisive in a national security crisis,” respondents to a recent Democracy Corps poll thought Republicans would do a “much” or “somewhat” better job by 34, 14, and 11 points, respectively.8
In other words, it is not enough to be trusted on “foreign policy.” Foreign policy might seem to be synonymous with national security to the policy elite, but voters view foreign policy issues as peripheral and cerebral–not core to their personal security.9 It is thus important that Democrats do not fool themselves into thinking our problem is solved when we see public opinion, like a recent poll by the Mellman Group, finding that 55% of Americans believe it is time to change the course on Bush’s foreign policy. Progressives should not be comforted by polling that shows 60% of Americans think it is better to work through the United Nations to share burdens and risks than to act unilaterally, and that 61% believe that other countries have begun viewing the U.S. more negatively over the past few years.10 Those beliefs are real, but they are beside the point. It is security–the vital question of who will keep Americans safe–that is the decisive issue at election time.
The Problem: Democrats’ National Security Story
The problem, in a nutshell, is that Republicans have controlled the national security narrative. They offer a simple security story: America is beset by evil enemies who are willing to use despicable tactics, abhorrent to any civilized person, to kill regular Americans. Decisive action, a strong military, and a willingness to use the greatest force possible against these enemies will protect America. Alliances are only helpful if our allies are equally decisive and willing to use force exactly as we would–and the vast majority are not. Even when Republicans give a nod to diplomacy, foreign aid, and other tools, their basic story line equates security with military action. According to this story, alliances are fine and so is a good international reputation–but neither, in and of themselves, is tied to American safety.
Democrats will not be able to capitalize on voter support for their policies until they break the Republican story line, and create an equally simple and convincing story for how their strategy will keep America safe. The test for voters is not which party can give us better and smarter foreign policy. It is far more direct: how will these policies make Americans more secure today.
Therefore, no matter how Democrats fare in this November’s election, our work will not be done. Even a decisive win in taking back Congress will not be the end, or even the beginning of the end. Rather, successfully attacking the Bush Administration’s policies is only the end of the beginning. Democrats need to ensure that the public’s increasing support for the Party on national security issues is not solely a reaction to the war in Iraq. Such support is thin and short-lived. Support for Democrats increased after past Republican failures, such as the Iran-Contra scandals–only to fall soon after it faded off the front pages.11 Republican losses do not necessarily mean Democratic gains. Rather, Democrats need to begin the long, difficult work of convincing voters that Democrats can keep Americans safe. To do so, it is not enough to attack specific policy failures. Democrats need to attack the Republican story line, while proving to America that they want, and can be trusted, to keep them safe.
Two Current Solutions
So what is our battle plan? How do we reclaim the mantle of national security leadership? Two opposing approaches have been fighting to shape Democratic political strategy–but both get us only halfway there.
In one camp, some in the Party argue we should “Stand Tall as Democrats”–that is, Democrats must adopt a national security strategy that amounts to nothing less than a complete reversal of the Bush Administration’s policies. Standing tall against the Administration is the only way to give Americans the alternative national security vision they crave and drive Democratic turnout on Election Day. For these strategists, Democrats have been losing elections since September 11th because they do not offer a clear enough alternative to Bush’s disastrous policies. Instead, Democrats who try to talk as tough as Bush on national security alienate the Party faithful and undecided voters, who see a bland choice between Republican and “Republican lite.” These voters, the thinking goes, want to see a Democratic Party that stands up for its beliefs, and comes out swinging.
This camp rightly recognizes that turning out that activist base is crucial: the last two presidential elections prove that a few thousand votes in a few key swing states can be the difference between winning and losing.12 In a political environment where the labels “elephant in donkey clothing” and “DINO (Democrat in Name Only)” are readily hurled at moderate Democrats, we cannot assume that activist voters will turn out for Democrats simply because we claim not to be Republicans.13
The second camp–those advocating we “Stand Strong on Security”–declares that the Democratic activist strategy misses a key part of the problem. For these strategists, the current national security gap was borne out of the Vietnam War. At that time, the country–even though it largely agreed with the Democrats’ policy toward Vietnam–began to lose faith in the ability (and willingness) of the Democratic Party to stand up and fight to keep them safe. In 1967, the public trusted Democrats and Republicans equally to handle national security. By 1974, over half of Americans preferred Republicans, while just over 20% preferred Democrats. A 30 to 40 point gap continued through the 1990s.14 Today, the American public still believes that Democrats care less about their safety than Republicans do.15 Democrats must face this “Vietnam hangover” which equates Democratic anti-war stands with a lack of strength on national security. Democrats cannot just attack the Administration–they must address the public’s long-term lack of confidence in Democratic strength.
If being anti-war or anti-force has become conflated in the public mind with being anti-security, the “Stand Strong for Security” school offers a clear solution: Democrats must take tough-minded security positions, and avoid “changing the subject” to Democratic mainstays like civil liberties, human rights and domestic issues. To convince Americans that our party will also keep them safe, Democrats must adopt conservative language on hard security issues like the War on Terror and the military, and must overtly oppose those in the party that shun tough-minded national security policies, particularly the use of force.
The “Stand Strong for Security” camp, however, misses a key part of credibility: passion and perceived sincerity. Certainly, it is essential to prove to the American people that we take national security seriously and that we will do whatever is necessary to defend the country. But what the strategy ignores is that, given the Democrats’ history and the emotional center of the progressive movement, when Democrats “stand strong,” voters see Democrats as pandering and insincere, speaking from poll numbers rather than their guts.16 Instead of instilling confidence, these policies ring hollow–Americans doubt that Democrats believe what they are saying, and are left wondering what Democrats would do if elected. Instead of gaining the trust of the American public, the “Stand Strong” strategy fails to resonate with security-minded voters. And in the meantime, it alienates crucial Democratic activists.
A Way Forward: “Stand Principled”
Faced with these two strategies, some have wrongly concluded that the Democratic Party is on the brink of civil war. But crafting our national security battle plan does not mean tearing the Party apart. There is a way for Democrats to overcome the security deficit without alienating our activist base.
The key is to both stand up for strong national security, while highlighting our values–including a core value that we must keep Americans safe. A “Stand Principled” strategy would bring Democratic values back into our political discussion, allowing us to develop a national security strategy and story that resonates with Democratic voters, while convincing the public that Democrats can be trusted with the country’s security.
The Truman National Security Project has begun to develop such a strong, smart, principled narrative that connects a tough-minded Democratic approach to national security with core Democratic values.
This strategy goes to the heart of who we are as Democrats. And it offers Americans more than a technocratic implementation mantra like “we will do it better.” We did not become Democrats simply because we were better practitioners of foreign policy, or smarter at getting the job done. We are Democrats because we are inspired by the values of the left. Democrats should not shy away from promoting these values. Supporting economic opportunity is a Democratic vision at home that can also create more stable and secure countries around the world. Freedom from oppression is a core liberal belief. It grounded the Democratic fight against apartheid under the Reagan Administration–we should not let the Bush administration claim the mantle of defending liberty.
A “Stand Principled” strategy can inform how we think–and talk about–the most vexing national security issues before us. Take three politically-laden security issues that come immediately to mind: keeping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, fighting terrorism, and illegal immigration. On all three, Democrats offer policies that resonate with Americans. Our challenge is to learn how to talk about them in a way that conveys both strength, and a conviction in our values.
What does it mean to bring values into our political strategy?
In the recent immigration debate, congressional Republicans immolated themselves with a self-created wedge issue, while Democrats watched the flames rise. But on the campaign trail, Democrats had to address constituents who raised immigration as a security issue. A “Stand Tall as Democrats” approach might have candidates declaring “no person is illegal” while proclaiming that the immigration issue is a political red herring that has nothing to do with security. “Stand Strong for Security” might look at the poll numbers and favor the popular notion of building a wall across our southern border because “America is a nation of laws, and we must prevent immigrants from entering illegally”.
A “Stand Principled” approach would stand against building the Berlin Wall in our backyard, and would instead suggest a position conveyed in candidate talking points such as:
Illegal immigration must be stopped. We must know who is coming into our country, and people must come in legally. But make no mistake about it–Democrats, at our core, believe that America grows stronger when we are a magnet for the best, brightest, hardest-working people in the world to come and make our nation great. For our security, we must know who is in our country. For our success as a nation, we must provide legal paths for hard-working people to come, integrate, and become a part of the American Dream.
Or take Iran, an issue on which some on the left see it as the right of Iran to gain nuclear weapons like any other country, while others on the left believe it to be one of the most dire national security threats we face. A “Stand Principled” approach might suggest a position reflected by messaging such as:
If any issue should arouse the passion of Democrats, it is the spread of nuclear weapons to a radical Iranian government. Iran is a nation that stones women, publicly executes homosexuals, suppresses its minorities, and has violated the most basic human rights we fight for as Democrats. Allowing Iran to build a nuclear weapon would strengthen this government’s hand against their own people. And nuclear proliferation–which would spread from Iran to the rest of the region–poses the greatest human rights abuse of all: threatening to destroy millions of lives in a war or a nuclear accident.
Finally, take the fight against radical Islamist terrorists. A candidate taking a “Stand Principled” position might use language such as that used regularly by Tony Blair.
For instance, in his speech to the Labour Party National Conference:
What we are confronting here is an evil ideology. It is a global struggle and it is a battle of ideas, hearts, and minds, both within Islam and outside it. This is the battle that must be won, a battle not just about the terrorists’ methods, but their views. Not just their barbaric acts, but their barbaric ideas. Not only what they do, but what they think and the thinking they would impose on others…
We don’t have to wonder what type of country [fundamentalist] states would be. Afghanistan was such a state. Girls put out of school. Women denied even rudimentary rights. People living in abject poverty and oppression. All of it justified by reference to religious faith…
We must be clear about how we win this struggle. We should take what security measures we can. But let us not kid ourselves. In the end, it is by the power of argument… that we will defeat this threat. That means not just arguing against their terrorism but their politics and their perversion of religious faith. It means exposing as the rubbish it is the propaganda about America and its allies wanting to punish Muslims or eradicate Islam. It means championing our values of freedom, tolerance, and respect for others. It means explaining why the suppression of women and the disdain for democracy are wrong.17
In an American sound bite, that could boil down to:
Radical Islamist terrorists don’t only threaten American lives. They destroy the values we believe in most deeply. They oppress women under medieval laws. They declare death to homosexuals, religious dissenters, and any free thinker under their sway. They refuse to tolerate the very diversity of opinion that makes us Democrats–and Americans. When we fail to fight them, we fail to fight for the dignity of our very humanity.
Standing on principle is hardly a new strategy–it is grounded in the tradition of the Democratic Party. Under Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, Democrats were the party that Americans looked to for national security leadership. These Democratic presidents took the threats of the day seriously–while voicing strong Democratic values and projecting inspiration, not fear, about the future. They convinced the country that they believed deeply in the nation’s safety and in the core values of the American left.
Ultimately, Democrats do have to establish a baseline perception that we recognize that America has dangerous and depraved enemies, and we are willing to use force against them. But we also need to do something ever harder, which is to tell a national security story in which force is only one tool that we use to protect the American people. It should be a narrative that focuses on the results of American actions, rather than the tools used to achieve those results. The use of force, after all, is a tool, which can sometimes make us safer and sometimes not. As mentioned above, the American people trust Democrats on foreign policy, but not national security. The task, then, is to convince them that the two are deeply intertwined.
Democrats can revive the Truman legacy in national security. A political strategy can both convince Americans that Democrats can keep them safe, and offer an alternative vision that can rally the party faithful–and swing voters–to action. That strategy is realizing that strength and values are not in opposition, but rather two sides of the same coin. Putting them together is central to winning not just in November–but for decades to come.
Of course, this is far from the final answer–it is instead the beginning of the debate. To kick off this conversation, the Democratic Strategist has invited responses to these ideas from some of the most serious and creative thinkers in the Democratic Party. What would a strong and principled Democratic response be to the issue of wiretapping? To promoting freedom and democracy? To Guantanamo?
We think Harry Truman might have put it best himself: “Carry the battle to them. Don’t let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive and don’t ever apologize for anything.” We should welcome the national security battle with Republican. Bring it on.
Marc Grinberg is a graduate student in political theory at Oxford University. He previously served as Congressional Fellow for the Truman National Security Project, leading its efforts on Capitol Hill and coordinating the activities of the Democratic Study Group on National Security.
Rachel Kleinfeld is the founder and co-director of the Truman Project. Rachel previously served as a Senior Consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, where she worked on information-sharing across the military, intelligence, and law enforcement communities, homeland security, and trade and security issues. She has also been a consultant to the Center for Security and International Studies on biosecurity and bioterrorism response issues.
Matt Spence is the co-director of the Truman National Security Project. He is currently writing a book on lessons learned from American democracy promotion in the former Soviet Union. Matt has been a Lecturer in International Relations at Oxford University, a Visiting Fellow at the Stanford Center on Democratization, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), and an elections monitor in Kosovo.
1Polling from: CNN/Gallup/USA Today, August 1, 2004 (Conducted 7/30-31/04; surveyed 1,011 adults, margin of error +/-3%); Newsweek, July 31, 2004 (Conducted 7/29-30/04; surveyed 1,190 adults; margin of error +/-3%).
2According to a Newsweek Poll from September 4, 2004, 60% of registered voters believed that the “policies and diplomatic efforts” of the Bush Administration have damaged America’s image and “led to more anti-Americanism around the world,” (Conducted 9/30-10/04; surveyed 1,013 registered voters; margin of error +/-4%). An Annenberg Public Policy Center Poll from September 2, 2004, showed that 52% of registered voters believed that “things in the country are…seriously off on the wrong track,” compared to only 39% who believed things “are generally going in the right direction.” (Conducted 8/9-29/04; surveyed 5,146 registered voters; margin of error +/-1%).
3According to recent polls, Democratic favorability ratings are nine-points higher than those of the Republicans and generic congressional polls give Democrats an 8-point lead. Polling from: Gallup/USA Today, August 1, 2006 (Conducted 7/28-30/06; surveyed 1,007 adults; margin of error +/-3%); Zogby, August 16, 2006 (Conducted 8/11-15/06; surveyed 1,018 likely voters; margin of error +/-3.1%). To be sure, there are key differences between today and the run-up to the 2004 elections. Ethics scandals (largely on the Republican side), a stronger anti-incumbent sentiment sweeping the nation and, of course, the increasing discontent with the war in Iraq may swing the election for the Democrats.
4Exit Polling from ABC News Polling Unit and Stanford Institute for Research in the Social Sciences at Stanford University, November 9, 2004.
5This plan, released in March by House and Senate Democrats as well as the DNC, is available at: http://www.democrats.org/a/2006/03/real_security_t.php.
6Polling by CBS News/New York Times, July 26, 2006. (Conducted 7/21-25/06; surveyed 1,127 adults; margin of error +/-3%). Also see, Jackie Calmes, “Republican Advantage on Issues of National Security Erodes,” Wall Street Journal, September 1, 2006, sec. A. Polling cited in article from NBC/Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2006 (Conducted 6/9-12/06; surveyed 1,002 adults; margin of error +/-3.1%).
7According to an August 25, Mellman Group Poll, 55% of the country believes it’s time to change the course of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, compared to 39% who believe the Administration’s foreign policy is taking us on the right track. (Mellman Group Poll, August 25, 2006, cited on ThinkProgress, the Center for American Progress blog: “New Poll: Americans View Bolton As Symbol of Foreign Policy Failures” ).
8Polling by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, September 7, 2006 (Conducted 8/23-27/06; surveyed 1,000 likely voters; margin of error +/-3%). There were a handful of polls conducted in the spring of 2006 that disagree with these findings. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in April 2006, found Democrats one point ahead in polling asking who respondents trusted more in the campaign against terrorism. The poll of 1,229 adults, however, had a sampling bias towards those over 65. A Garin-Hart-Yang poll for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in April 2006 found that respondents, when asked who they would vote for if they were voting solely on national security, favored Democrats over Republicans by 41 to 39%. We find these numbers encouraging, and suggest here a strategy to capitalize on this growing voter sentiment. But to date, we have found more polling that points to voter disillusionment with Republicans than voter trust for Democrats on this issue, suggesting that a need to bolster our story line still exists.
9The September 7, 2006, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll for Democracy Corps found that Democrats poll 12 points better on foreign policy than they do on national security.
10Mellman Group poll, August 25, 2006.
11Loren Griffith, “What Went Wrong,” Truman National Security Project, May 2005, drawing on data collected from national polls conducted by more than 10 organizations, chiefly Gallup, ABC News/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, NBC/Wall St. Journal, Harris Poll, and Fox News as well as data gathered from three proprietary databases: Gallup Brain, iPoll, and Roper Center.
12Kerry lost by less than 1% in both Iowa (10,000 votes) and New Mexico (6,000 votes), by 2% in Ohio (118,000 votes) and by only 20,000 votes in Arizona (less than 3%).
13For example, in an article in the American Prospect, “Put a Face on Your Fears,” the authors referred to Senator Max Baucus–who should be lauded as a success story of a Democrat winning in a culturally red state–as a “Democrat in Name Only.” Keith Ellison, the Democratic candidate for Congress in Minnesota’s 5th district, recently argued, “Republican-lite has failed us as Democrats,” referring to retiring Democrat Representative Martin Sabo.
15A January 31, 2006 Democracy Corps poll asked which party likely voters associate more with “security and keeping people safe.” Forty-eight percent said Republicans care “much more” or “somewhat more.” Only 31% said the same of Democrats.
16An unfortunate example of this is how Jon Stewart, of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, portrayed political strategists in its skit with Paul Hackett. In the skit, a passionate Hackett is drained of conviction by handlers, pollsters, and consultants who were portrayed as the mainstream Democratic Party. The skit’s widespread circulation on the internet and blogosphere suggest that it touched a nerve.
17Tony Blair, speech to the Labour Party National Conference, July 16, 2005.