Democracy Arsenal

« In Pakistan - Desperate is, as Desperate Does | Main | Don't Judge a Book by Two Chapters, Yglesias »

November 19, 2007

Democratic National Security Messaging
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

There have been a number of pieces out lately on national security messaging from Ed Kilgore and Democracy Corps.  I’m a little late to the game but there are a few things worth mentioning.  First, after forty years of Republican dominance on this issue, I completely agree with Democracy Corps that Democrats have a unique opportunity to take control of the national security message and use it to their advantage.  Iraq is clearly responsible for shattering the narrative of Republicans as responsible stewards of America’s foreign policy.  Now Democrats need to take advantage of the situation and prove that they are in fact credible by presenting an alternative agenda.  However, let’s be clear.  That simply isn’t going to happen in a permanent way until Democrats get into office and are able to prove that their policies work.  The public needs proof points and despite the fact that I thought that the Clinton Administration ran a perfectly reasonable foreign policy, the public wasn’t really paying attention to these issues in the 1990s.  Kosovo is just not the type of proof point that is going to resonate

Second, Ed Kilgore presents an interesting taxonomy of the choices that Democrats have in terms of national security.  The three that I think make the most sense are:

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).

The one thing I will say is that I’m not sure if these are choices or part of one integrated messaging strategy.  I think that you can do all three pretty effectively.  My own personal preference would be for a message along these lines:  “After seven years of a reckless foreign policy marked by wishful-thinking and incompetence, we need an intelligent defense for a complex world.  This means leaving Iraq to make America safer and focus on the real threats we face.  Our troops have performed valiantly and done everything they can but it’s time to bring them home and focus our efforts on the real dangers we face from those who attacked us on 9/11 and are now hiding out in Pakistan, to our debilitating dependence on foreign oil, to the strain that this Administration has put on our military.”

Kilgore also argues that the Republican’s ineffective military is probably the area where Dems can strike back hardest and he’s probably right. Although, I think energy security, homeland security and nuclear proliferation (Especially unsecured nuclear materials) are all areas worth hitting and hitting hard. 

The one messaging element that Kilgore ignores, is working with others / moral authority and respect in the world.  Research consistently shows that Americans like working with others and this was clearly part of the Kerry message in 2004 (Strong at Home Respected in the World).  The thing that I’m not convinced of is that when faced with the choice of working with others or keeping America safe, how do Americans react? Of course, this shouldn’t be a choice.  Working effectively with other does in fact keep America safe.  But Republicans often do a great job of presenting it as a choice and when they do Democrats lose. 


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Democratic National Security Messaging:



I agree with you but am sad to see that there's no discussion of civil and human rights here. Every discussion about security should be a civil rights discussion as well. That's a good way for Democrats to separate themselves from the Republicans. And, according to the Democracy Corp study that you linked too, abuses of civil rights are a big Republican weakness with voters.

People who spend all their time thinking about how to run successful campaigns tend not to be very good at foreign policy. The reverse is also true.

In the first place, it isn't a party message that American voters will be judging next November, but a personal one. A large part of that message won't involve positions on issues, but must instead focus on influencing voters' judgment as to whether the messenger -- that is, the Democratic Presidential candidate -- is worthy of trust in the field of national security and foreign affairs. If the Bush administration foreign policy had not produced so many disasters, the Democrats would be in real trouble on this point; the Democratic primary electorate simply doesn't value foreign policy experience, or care whether its candidate can discuss defense or international affairs outside the context of the election campaign.

Secondly, Goldenberg's point that no one remembers Kosovo is sound, but begs the question of what Americans will remember about the foreign policy of the last Democratic administration. Democrats may decide they don't want to choose a nominee because she was the last Democratic President's wife, and if they choose another candidate this will be less of a problem. Otherwise, though, any Republican candidate will hammer away on the theme that the last Democratic President was in office for eight years, while al Qaeda grew and prospered, and did nothing.

If you're going to insist on nominating someone whose mastery of foreign and national security affairs is confined to memorization of talking points, and if your nominee unavoidably raises an issue that steps on some of your best arguments, you're going to make problems for your party that it doesn't need -- even in an election year when the incumbent Republican President is likely to be so unpopular that any Democratic nominee without a criminal record should win. This last fact highlights the final thing Democrats should be aware of heading into next year's campaign: for them, every Republican needs to be a Bush Republican.

This has less to do with positions and policies than it does with the personality of the President himself. He can be described as ignorant, lazy, boorish, self-absorbed, tolerant of corruption, a spendthrift, a weak leader under the thumb of his Vice President, a creature of the campaign willing to go to any lengths -- even to the point of putting American soldiers' lives on the line -- to preserve his own image. Any conceivable Republican nominee has supported Bush far more often than he has opposed the President; more to the point, incorporating direct and highly personal attacks on President Bush in Democratic campaign rhetoric will enrage his remaining admirers, making it more difficult for any Republican nominee to retain their loyalty if he does not defend "their" President. This, of course, would make it more difficult for the GOP nominee (and Republican candidates down the ballot outside the Deep South and West) to appeal to the large number of voters who dislike Bush but are not sold on the Democrats.

These are the voters who will be key to this election. If the Democrats are successful in tying the unpopular Bush to the GOP Presidential nominee as well as Republican candidates down the ballot, we'll be talking about a landslide of historic proportions at this time next year. If they aren't, and if they compound their failure by nominating a candidate many Americans already dislike and distrust, we won't be.

Post a comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In

Guest Contributors
Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use