The National Security Primary

Peter Daou, a very sharp thinker who heads up Hillary Clinton's new media workshop, offered-up a post to the blogosphere arguing:

The Democrat who eventually faces Sen. McCain will require a set of skills and experiences that enables them to:
  • compete on a broad playing field;
  • confront and beat back a GOP attack machine waiting to tear them down;
  • put forth and defend core Democratic ideas - and ideals - such as universal health care;
  • build a solid coalition for victory;
  • and importantly, stand toe-to-toe with Sen. McCain on national security.
Hillary excels on each of these fronts. [On the last point, my blogosphere friends know that I spent most of 2004 in the Kerry-Edwards war room and gained some perspective on how national security -- an issue Democrats cannot and will not cede -- takes center stage in a general election.]

I think there's some merit to some of those points, but the point about national security is close to the theme of my book and I think Daou has this basically wrong. In 2004, John Kerry argued that the combination of him being more hawkish than Howard Dean and his personal story gave him a decisive edge vis-a-vis Dean. Even in retrospect, that's maybe correct. But if you control for the fact that Obama is a much more charismatic figure and effective orator than Dean, that Kerry's personal qualities where a decorated military career plus long service in the Senate rather than having been the president's wife, and that the war in Iraq is much less popular now than it was four years ago, the basic calculus seems very wrongheaded to me.

Now Kerry, for all his flaws, actually did come pretty close in 2004 so a Kerry-esque strategy plus economic distress just might work in 2008. And, of course, an attempt to draw a clear line of contrast on questions of doctrine might fail. But I, for one, would like to see it given a try. This is especially true because I think Obama is closer to correct on the merits of the underlying issue. But in political terms, a critique focused on implementation issues is going to be a lot less persuasive when directed at John McCain than it was at George W. Bush.

Obama will have a clear shot at making a simple argument that Bush's ideas have led to bad consequences, McCain shares Bush's ideas, and Obama has different ones. McCain will, of course, push back and say that Obama's ideas are wrongheaded and dangerous. But I actually have some faith in the power of liberal ideas and in the demonstration effect of the all-too-visible consequences of the alternative. Clinton, by contrast, continues to show a proclivity for either the politics of fear or else the politics of timidity.