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February 28, 2006

National Security Vision: Right, Left, or Dare to Be Different?
Posted by Gordon Adams

Once again the Democrats have tried to outflank the Republicans on the right on national security. And, once more, the Republicans, and the Administration have out-maneuvered them. The Dubai Ports World management deal will go into overtime, with a 45-day CFIUS review, as it should have had in the first place.

The lesson should be clear. The issue with the administration’s national security policies is not one of who can be tougher. Al Gore tried that; so did John Kerry. No sale! The Republicans will always win the fight, positioned that way.

Many Democrats have been posing the wrong issue, and not with a lot of credibility. If they try to look tougher than the Republicans, it doesn’t pass the laugh test. If they move to the left, they are vulnerable to being soft on American national security.

So maybe they should look back, to times when Democrats ran and won with a strong national security position, even though Republicans could look and sound tougher – Truman (Dewey), Kennedy (Nixon), and Clinton (1996 - Dole). (I am setting aside Carter – Ford was an unusually weakened candidate and Carter had worn the uniform for some time, both of which make the 1976 election an anomaly on this issue. And national security was simply not the issue, in the wake of Watergate.)

Presidential elections are, of course, muddy things, that turn on domestic politics most of the time, or simply on the manipulation of image, rather than substance. But there have been several instances when Democrats won in an era when national security played a role in the race, even though the Republican alternative looked and sounded tougher: Truman (Dewey), Kennedy (Nixon), Johnson (Goldwater).

Of these four, only Kennedy had a strong war record to put forward to bolster his national security credentials, but Nixon clearly tried to play the “Democrats are weak on national security” card, and the election was a squeaker.

It seems to me there are three unifying threads that may link these elections for the Democrats. The analysis is imperfect, for neither the candidates nor the points in time in history were perfectly alike. But the similarities may be suggestive. First, the candidate projected himself as reasonable, moderate, and relatively non-ideological (for his time). Second, each candidate demonstrated competence in managing policy issues, despite contention on domestic political issues. Third, and perhaps most significant, each presented himself as a leader internationally, someone who could rally other nations to America’s goals in the world.

Historians will argue the fine tuning, but I want to pull out what I think is the unifying thread. None of them ran on what Madelaine Albright might call a “cojones” ticket, trying to project that they were tougher than the Republican adversary. But, to varying degrees, all of them projected a pragmatic, non-ideological competence on global issues, and a strong desire to lead internationally in the pursuit of America’s security goals.

Perhaps there is a lesson here for the Democrats, if they are going to at least neutralize, if not challenge the Republicans on national security. The argument would not be that Republicans are war-mongers or captives of the military-industrial complex; that is neither particularly true nor compelling to most Americans. And the argument is not that Democrats can be tougher on national security by pounding their shields harder with their swords; many of them look strange in that position, and it is too easy a stance for Republicans to end-run.

The argument Democrats might want to think about is that they are more pragmatic, competent, less ideological, and more inclined to exercise true international leadership in the pursuit of America’s interests than the Republicans. There could be a “target rich environment” for such an approach.

- The Democrats might argue that an ill-informed, incompetently planned and stubbornly unilateralist commitment to use military force in Iraq failed in its mission to create a stable, democratic regime that could guarantee security to the Iraqi people, cost us wounded and dead in the region of 18,000, and created a new seed-bed in which global terrorists could practice their craft, leaving us less secure.

- They might argue that an ideology that opposed strong domestic policies at the federal level, combined with incompetent management, led to an inept, disastrous federal response to Hurricane Katrina, a test-bed for providing for homeland security.

- They might argue that an ideologically-driven agenda that resists international commitments has weakened the nation’s security by leaving us vulnerable and on the margins of international law with respect to global warming and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

- They might argue that the decision to play global cop systematically frustrated our ability to create a broad and deep coalition that could confront Saddam Hussein.

- They might argue that systematically violating our principles of justice and fairness with respect to the treatment of prisoners, a very un-pragmatic approach, has had the consequence of weakening the credibility of the federal government to lead internationally in the promotion of human values.

- They might argue that overstepping the FISA legal requirements in an assertion of executive power has not been shown to be especially effective in its goal – capturing terrorists – while it has left many Americans concerned about the protection of their civil liberties.

An assertion of administration incompetence and extremism might be the centerpiece of a Democratic alternative, with a call for a course correction that ensures greater competence, less ideology, stronger international leadership, and reinforced checks and balances in our political system. Internationally, the word “hope,” rather than the word “fear” might be one of the key themes.

If the Democrats are to seize the ground of pragmatic, competent, hopeful international leadership, they might want to hurry. There are a few Republicans who may be staking out parts of the same territory – one thinks of Sens. Hagel and McCain, for example. It could provide an alternative, and an opportunity for the Democrats, should they wish to step away from the Hobson’s Choice of “being tougher,” or “being weak,” neither of which are particularly real.


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But there have been several instances when Democrats won in an era when national security played a role in the race, even though the Republican alternative looked and sounded tougher: Truman (Dewey), Kennedy (Nixon), Johnson (Goldwater).

Some people think that Kennedy won the election because he accused the Eisenhower administration of allowing a "missile gap" with the Soviets, though we in fact had more missiles. Johnson tried the opposite approach, claiming that Goldwater would start a nuclear war.

IOW, fear mongering works. Simply claiming the mantle of competence probably won't cut it.

The argument would not be that Republicans are war-mongers or captives of the military-industrial complex; that is neither particularly true nor compelling to most Americans.

I can't say what's compelling to most Americans, but your claim that Republicans are somehow independent of the military industrial complex is absurd. Cheney alone is proof of this. Bruce Jackson, former VP of Lockheed, bragged that he "wrote the Republican foreign policy platform." Our defense budget priorites have hardly changed since 2000, because the things that are effective in fighting a war on terror aren't profitable.

But I can see why Dems might not want to mention this, since they're guilty too. Eisenhower's initial phrase was "military industrial congressional complex." Unfortunately, he was right. case you haven't noticed, the Dems are actually winning on this issue.

During the immediate post-WWII era, any political effort by Republicans to portray the Democrats as less tough was bound to fall flat. The Democrats were the party that had produced a four-term president who had lead the country through its most important military engagement since the Revolutionary War. As a result of that war the US emerged as the preminent global power. Truman was a man who had drfopped two nuclear bombs on Japan. My understanding is that Dewey was not perceived as tougher than Truman.

I suspect the Republicans nominated a general in 1952 because the Democrats were perceived as more assertive internationally and militarily. Of course, Eisenhower campaigned on a promise to end the Korean War.

Kennedy was not perceived as less tough than Nixon - just younger. Kennedy was a war hero, and he and his brother were noted commie hunters like Nixon. Kennedy campaigned in part on the missile gap - in effect rejecting Eisenhower's MEC warning and embracing more military spending.

It is Vietnam which created the current change in perceptions of the parties.

i think your opening analysis is all wet

comments about the historical facts by Dan Kervisk are on target

denms were not out manouvered; they had little they could do with the repub's current lock on congress, except let bush and republicans by extension twist in the wind
the competence thing is slowly bubbling to the surface and on this we will win; bush's criminal incompetence in iraq is only possible to see for those `who have eyes to see'; the american public suddenly isrealizing they do have eyes to see and they are not liking it

in my very republican area, many republicans are very angry with bush over the ports thing

all this says to me that thems have won this one

It seems to me most of the comments have missed the point.

First, Democrats have not "won" anything on the Port issue. What is moving the issue is the decision by Republicans to distance themselves from the President. Before that, nobody was listening to the Democrats. And nothing has been "won," in any case, as there is no "win" here for the Democrats, unless one thinks protectionism and a general distrust of the Arab world are winning issues for the Democrats. It is worth thinking a little beyond and outside this morning's headline to see how this plays, in my view.

Nor has anyone commented on the manifest failure of Al Gore and John Kerry to make national security a Democratic issue by trying to look tougher than Bush. Neither one "won" that way; support on the national security issue stayed firmly in the Republican camp, in Kerry's case by more than 15 percentage points through the whole campaign. It seems to me that the Democratic political advisers were pushing hard for their candidate to "look tough," "run to the right," and it failed. Nor has the Democratic left had a compelling, winning alternative.

As David Mace says, the issue is competence, and, I believe ideology. Between the blinders about reality and the incompetent execution, the administration has left a very wide opening on national security that Democrats could fill, if they weren't so busy trying to look "tougher" than the Republicans.

On minor points, anyone who argues that Kennedy was tougher than Nixon on national security in 1960 wasn't there then. I was careful not to say the Republicans were "independent" of the military-industrial complex; it is just not a very electorally compelling argument to suggest that candidates of only one party take campaign contributions from defense contractors (among others) or votes for defense-related benefits for their districts.

And, finally, you bet "fear mongering" works, especially well for Republicans; just look at the last two elections. It is my belief that "hope mongering," leadership, competence, and pragmatism work best for Democrats.

"It seems to me that the Democratic political advisers were pushing hard for their candidate to "look tough," "run to the right," and it failed." - G.A.

Very much agree, but it seems our current frontrunner in the 2008 pre-primary race is going to take that tack as well, or at least that's the spin they're putting out.

One Democratic candidate for the Senate this year is offering a different sort of message -- which is neither 'hawk' nor 'dove', but rather a shift of focus to dealing with real threats to our interests, and not stirring up trouble elseshere:

"Refocusing America's foreign and defense policies in a way that truly protects our national interests and seeks harmony where they are not threatened."

I'm sure some of the regular posters here would apply the 'isolationist' label to that message (I'd call it 'realist'), but if it resonates with Democratic primary voters in June this year, in a primary with two serious candidates, expect it to get a lot of attention nationwide.

The Democrats have not had credible national defense spokesman since Sam Nunn. They need to do more than talk tough, and need to actually develop some leadership. Talking Maj. Hackett out of running for the Senate in Ohio was not a good start.

Nor has anyone commented on the manifest failure of Al Gore and John Kerry to make national security a Democratic issue by trying to look tougher than Bush.

I wasn't under the impression that either Kerry or Gore had tried to look tougher than Bush. I would say Kerry, for example, ran to the center as a mainstream internationalist, and tried to position himself as a credible moderate alternative to Bush - a foreign policy traditionalist in opposition to Bush's new wave nationalist unilateralism. The hope was, I take it, that Kerry's status as a decorated veteran would simply remove the toughness question from the deliberations, and that the choice would then rest on policy soundness.

One issue that did produce some traction for Kerry, I believe, was widespread anxiety about rising anti-Americanism and isolation. Many Americans do not at all like feeling alone in world, and the sense that our allies were abandoning us, and that the respect in which we were once held was turning to derision and dislike made many people very uncomfortable. But I think that trend fought against the reluctance of many people to switch commanders-in-chief during wartime.

I believe the Bush positioning that Kerry could not crack was not on foreign policy and international relations generally, but on terrorism specifically. To put it crudely and bluntly, people knew that Bush would continue to lock up Muslims left and right around the world, at at home. They knew he would ship them off to other countries to be tortured, and do some of it himself. They knew he would spy on them avidly. And they knew that he would tell civil libertarians to go f*** themselves if they squawked.

My own perception is that that issue no longer cuts toward Republicans the way it did in 2004, but we shall see.

"pragmatic, non-ideological competence"

That strikes me as a pretty good few-words summary of the Kerry line. And Dukakis before him.

Not too promising.

Oh, and what Cal said.

Picking up on what Dan Kervick said, the isolation piece was definitely new with Kerry, but because he had no alternative program to the Bush agenda, it just looked like good old fashioned "multilateralism" - and was vulnerable to the attack that Kerry wanted to give others a veto over US action.

The problem was that Gore and Kerry did try to look tougher than Bush. Both campaigns decided to put terrorism and proliferation at the center of their pitch - read the Kerry speeches - that is the theme - and argue national security on George Bush's turf. That let the Republicans dominate the argument,with Democrats never being able to argue that they could batter terrorists better than Bush (as Kervick notes), be tougher on Iran, and prosecute Iraq better than Bush.

One blind alley this has led to is the argument that Democrats want to add forces to the Army. As I have argued elsewhere, the question is "more troops for what mission?" If it is to rotate more troops in and out of Iraq, no addition to the Army will produce troops in time to do that, and the question remains - is it Democratic Party policy to do another Iraq? If not, and I believe "not" is the answer, then what are the troops for - what is the mission?

I also disagree that leadership and competence and pragmatism, wrapped in a message of hope, was the Dukakis message. Having worked in that issues group, I have to say Dukakis was one of the worst candidates we have had on the national security issue. He didn't want to talk about national security at all, let alone project and image of hope, competence and global leadership. It was one of the singular weaknesses of a campaign that had many weaknesses.

the question is "more troops for what mission?" If it is to rotate more troops in and out of Iraq, no addition to the Army will produce troops in time to do that,"

We can add significant troops in 2 years, provided we can attract the volunteers. Are you saying we'll be out of iraq in 2 years?

If we'd started 2 years ago we'd have them now, but Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld didn't bother.

Fair point, Gordon, on Dukakis. I remember his saying the campaign was about "competence, not ideology." Of course, he was referring to domestic policy. Still, I think both Dukakis and Kerry, in their own ways, failed to get across much other than "we'll be more competent" (in either domestic or foreign policy). Competent at what?

Note that my characterization of Kerry is not at all inconsistent with the claim that he tried also to say he'd be tougher, hence putting himself on Bush territory. In other words, the Kerry campaign had no message of its own, and so the only thing that came through was the "global test" concept (which got interpreted, wrongly, as a veto to other countries). I'm not exactly saying anything new there!

I can't comment on Gore, because the only thing I remember about foreign policy from 2000 is Bush saying "we don't do nation-building."

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