The GOP Should Run to Obama's Left on National Security

It's impossible to run to the president's right without turning off war-weary voters, but pushing back against his excesses could be good politics and policyobama jersey.jpg

In the Republican mind, electoral success comes partly from running to the right of the Democratic nominee on matters of national security. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush: all won at least one presidential election against an opponent that they out-hawked. The GOP nominee in 2012 is likely to attempt that same approach. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Michelle Bachmann, John Bolton -- they've already boxed themselves into that posture. It's what the GOP establishment wants, too. Talk radio hosts, national security writers at National Review, and many former Bush officials are united in their insistence that Obama is weaker on terror than they'd like.

The irony is that running to President Obama's left on national security is much better politics, no matter what Bill Kristol tells you.

Here are three reasons why:

1) John McCain tried to run to Obama's right on national security as a septuagenarian war hero with decades of foreign policy experience and the recent success of being among the first to call for "the surge" in Iraq. If that didn't work when Obama was an untested newbie, seen by a faction in his own party as unready to take a "3 am phone call," why would it work for a Republican with less experience running against the commander-in-chief who killed bin Laden?

2) In a presidential debate, it'll be impossible for the Republican to make Obama look excessively dovish. The president can retort that he sent more troops than Bush to Afghanistan, talk at length about drone strikes, list all the terrorists killed on his watch, mischievously allude to bin Laden, maybe even come up with another terrorist scalp during the campaign via drone attack or raid.  

3) There are, however, some devastating critiques available to any Republican able and willing to make them. Imagine a nominee who a) issued a biting, accurate take-down of security theater, and inflamed voter passions by becoming a demagogue on naked airport scanners and intrusive pat-downs; b) Insisted that Libya was an imprudent, unaffordable war that had nothing to do with American interests, and was illegally launched (a critique that can be made in campaign ads with Obama's own words); c) Tore into Obama for asserting the power to assassinate American citizens in secret, hammering on the obvious imprudence and frightening potential for abuse; d) pointed out that we'd be a lot safer if we redirected money now spent on nation-building in Afghanistan to almost any halfway effective, achievable counter-terrorism measure); e) picked one or two of the most egregious civil liberties abuses going on and pinned them on Obama; f) and generally recognized that while "you realized we were right once you took office" may be cathartic for a subset of Republican insiders and political junkies, it amounts to "we're the same," whereas "you broke many of your promises and are doing things you rightly deemed abhorrent, how can we ever trust you" is a far more effective critique.

Would the hawkish GOP base revolt if its standard bearer tried this strategy? Hardly. A lot of them are war weary, averse to nation building, ready to freak out about the government spying on their phone calls and email accounts, and uninclined to go deeper into debt by prolonging our foreign wars. Their secret wish is for a truce on national security that reorients our focus toward the economy and the deficit. The only faction that wouldn't go along: the neo-cons and the Dick Cheney, Andy McCarthy, David Addington, John Yoo wing of the Bush Administration (groups with some overlap). Given the wrongheaded beliefs that they hold, it's to their credit that they'd refuse to embrace the expedient position.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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