Whether justified or not, most voters consider Republicans better custodians of the nation’s security than Democrats. This bias began after the Democrats drove the country into the Vietnam quagmire, thereafter making many in the party uncomfortable with the use of American power. Only three year ago, the Democrat’s own polls gave Republicans a whopping 35-point advantage on the proverbial “who’s better at handling national security?” However, polls are now showing the Republican edge is vanishing. The Democrats have an opportunity to close the “security gap.” Perhaps, they may even wrest control of the issue from the Republicans.
Iraq of course is the immediate cause of declining public confidence in Republicans’ handling of matters of war and peace. The war has dealt a serious blow to their credibility as the purveyors of security. The problem is not just that the weapons of mass destruction never materialized, that Bush isolated America internationally, or that prospects for a democratic Iraq now look very remote. The deeper, more vexing issue for the Republicans is the war on terrorism itself. Indeed, for all its missteps in the run-up to the war, the White House did manage to convince the public that Iraq and terrorism were synonymous. Even today many Americans equate the war in Iraq with the war they really care about: the war on terrorism. That is why Bush’s poll numbers on the war on terrorism are falling too.
Short of a dramatic turnaround on the ground in Iraq (which no one is predicting), it seems increasingly unlikely that anything good will come of Iraq for the Republicans in the fall midterm elections. Already the White House is switching (grinding!) gears, looking for ways to contain the Iraq issue — hence the recent acknowledgments that “mistakes were made.” But containing the damage won’t be easy, if only because the White House was so effective in defining our actions toward Iraq as a barometer of how well we were doing in the war on terrorism. Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats encountered much the same problem when they inadvertently turned Vietnam into a test of their judgment and skill at containing communism.
Although Bush’s war has turned into a test of Republicans’ competency, it is by no means clear that the Democrats will be able to turn the tables on the Republicans, let alone fashion a foreign policy agenda that makes good use of America’s vast resources and immense power. Right now, Democrats on Capitol Hill are playing a waiting game, trying not to gloat as the Republicans implode. This strategy is no more likely to win back the security issue than trying to return to the “good old” days of Harry Truman. The New Republic’s Peter Beinart is certainly right when he says that Democrats today have trouble telling a “coherent story” about national security. But the reason is not only that they lack a “usable past,” by which Beinart means a Truman-like narrative that can help them make their many foreign policy ideas compelling to the public. Beinart is also right that the Democrats must take the lead in reclaiming liberal internationalism, restoring the habits of multilateralism and cooperation so critical to legitimating American power. But Democrats need more than good policy. They need good politics Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a domestic strategy for rebuilding a centrist consensus behind U.S. foreign policy.
If the Democrats hope to get back into the security game, they need a political strategy for doing so. The Republicans gained control of the national security agenda in the 1970s by building an alliance between the south and the west, reaching out to swing voters concerned about both solvency and security, and building ideological linkages between anti-communism and a particular brand of American nationalism.
Among Democrats — and among moderate Republicans as well — there is little debate about what policies to pursue: liberal internationalism, as it did for the balance of the twentieth century, offers the appropriate mix of power and cooperation. The question is how to get there politically. Figuring out how to rebuild domestic support for liberal internationalism — and using that support to electoral gain — constitutes a far more daunting challenge than identifying the right policy instruments.
For starters, Democrats need to strike political bargains — logrolls, by another name — that appeal to voters on both sides of the aisle. Linking homeland security to free trade can appeal to pro-trade Republican constituencies and key Democratic labor groups keen on expanding blue-collar jobs in ports and transportation networks. Linking multilateralism and burden sharing offers a way of framing liberal internationalism that marries the swing voters’ preference for security with their concerns about the economy. NGOs and the Christian right share much common ground when it comes to religious freedom, fighting corruption and crime, and protecting human rights, creating opportunities for cooperation between powerful constituencies on the left and right.
The Democrats know what to do abroad. It is time for them to get smart at home.
Charles Kupchan is a professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The End of the American Era.
Peter Trubowitz is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Defining the National Interest.