Ever since Ronald Reagan successfully campaigned for the White House against President Jimmy Carter's failed handling of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, Republicans have framed Democrats as weak on national security and terrorism. That former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was ever considered a serious contender for the presidency is a testament to the political hay Republican are able to make from national security. For the first time in a generation, President Obama has the opportunity to reverse that trend. But if he and Democrats nationwide fail to seize it, they will allow Republicans to once again use national security against them. The White House must decide whether it wants national security to be a political strength or weakness in the looming 2010 and 2012 elections, and it must decide soon.
Despite making tremendous strides in national security policy, the White House continues to shun its politics. President Obama's approval ratings on national security and foreign policy, though far from stellar, poll better for him than any other issue. Yet his specific policies--civilian trials for terrorists, banning torture--poll poorly. The White House likely fears that tying Obama too publicly to his unpopular policies will tarnish his generalized popularity on national security. For example, when the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other terrorists in New York City became politically unpopular, the White House quietly agreed to move it rather than fight for the location. But if Obama doesn't ally himself with these policies on his terms, Republicans will do it on their terms.
Beyond the Tea Party focus on taxes and health care, Republicans are preparing to put national security center stage. This weekend, CPAC attendees listed national security as their third most important issue after the size and spending of federal government. Many conservatives see national security as key to Republican Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts and are urging future GOP candidates to redouble that focus. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, though unpopular nationally, is using his sway within the GOP establishment to pressure Republicans on national security. Whether the White House wants it or not, a national debate on national security is coming.
Because the White House continues its unpopular policies without making a bold defense of them, congressional Democrats up for reelection are stuck with a difficult choice. Either they break with the White House, halting Obama's agenda as Senate Democrats did in voting down funding to close Guantanamo, or they side with the White House and defend its policies when Republican challengers inevitably bring them up. But if voters mistrust Democrats on national security, they especially mistrust congressmen, who are often seen as bureaucrats lacking the "commander-in-chief" sheen of the president. Congressional Democrats know they can't campaign on Obama's unpopular policies and can't make them popular. They have been so sheepish on national security, in fact, that they refuse to even establish a party message. Understandably, few are likely to risk reelection just to defend Obama's policies for him.
With Democrats mum on national security, Republicans have significant control over the national conversation on the issues. Unchecked, they've had marked success in painting Democratic policies as motivated by abstract moral and civil right concerns. This allows Republicans to position themselves as prioritizing safety first. If the GOP can frame national security debates as a zero-sum compromise between American safety and abstract moral ideals, they will win every time. If they succeed in making this narrative stick, 2010 could be simply the beginning in Democratic losses over national security.
The White House knows that the Republican narrative isn't accurate. President Obama's policies are certainly informed by civil rights, but they are also the most effective. Gen. David Petraeus is among the many military officials to agree that torture doesn't provide good intelligence and is a net loss for the U.S. civilian trials are far more effective at securing convictions than military tribunals. Yet the White House political team sees such policies as radioactive, at times actively opposing them.
Instead of dooming its party to electoral losses, the White House must get out in front of the coming national security debate. The message to sell is that President Obama's policies make Americans safer. In addition to being more politically viable than high-minded rhetoric about civil rights, this also happens to be, by every indication, true. If Democrats can sell their national security as making Americans safer, they'll not only have won an immediate victory, they'll have turned one of the party's greatest weaknesses into what could be among its greatest strengths.
Even engaging national security politics at all could well be a victory for Democrats. By shifting the GOP-preferred debate from "safety versus civil rights," a sure loser for Democrats, to "whose policies make America safer," Democrats would be on much safer ground. It's not hard to see why Obama's policies poll poorly. Voters dislike the idea of civilians interrogating terrorists, for example, because it comes across as "soft." Due to entrenched popular assumptions, Democrats are unlikely to win a contest over toughness. Should Democrats champion the clear message that civilian interrogations are more effective, they would move the entire field of debate to more comfortable territory.
This, after all, would be similar to the White House's political strategy on health care. Rather than make the case that expanding coverage to millions of Americans is an abstract moral duty, Obama has focused on cost control and efficiency. The battle for health care has not been easy, but Obama has made more progress than any Democrat in a generation or more, and he may go further still. The difference for Democrats between health care and national security is that they chose to confront health care. But national security is not going away. Democrats have the ultimate weapon in any political debate: their policies work. If Obama uses his commander-in-chief gravitas to champion national security, it could be a boon for the entire Democratic Party. If he does not, he will only be enabling the Republican narrative that has won them elections for decades: Democrats are weak on national security.