How Republicans Got Their Groove Back on Security

After the debacle of the Iraq War, Democrats were suddenly the party Americans trusted to protect them. This midterm election suggests that's over.

The Secret Service reels from blunder to blunder, the Ebola virus finds new victims, and the black masks of ISIS march across Iraq. The embattled Democratic president’s foreign policy approval rating is plummeting. Voters across America have come to feel the Republican Party can better keep them safe.

In other words, a series of novel and terrifying developments overseas have brought things back to normal in the United States.

Republicans have owned domestic security since 1970. For nearly all of the past 40 years, polls have consistently shown that Americans trust Republicans to handle security—and the related issues of foreign affairs and the military—better than Democrats.

“Own” is, in fact, the academic term. Political scientists refer to the fact that Americans associate the parties with strengths on issues in a way that is sustained and long term as issue ownership. But why do Republicans own foreign policy? And why, so quickly after a Democratic takeover during the Iraq War, are Republicans reestablishing security dominance?

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Natural security landed firmly in the GOP column through a combination of cultural forces and historical chances.

Foremost is simple prioritization, according to Patrick J. Egan, a political scientist at NYU. In Partisan Priorities: How Issue Ownership Drives and Distorts American Politics, Egan found that the issue ownership is mostly a product of the parties prioritizing certain issues. When a party comes to power, it must decide how to allocate a limited budget, and how it does that affects how competent voters perceive it to be on various issues. Since 1972, Republican Party voters have made military spending far and away their top spending priority, while Democrats have prioritized fighting poverty. (While actual—rather than desired—defense spending has been heavily dictated by external security circumstances like the collapse of the Soviet Union, Republican administrations, particularly Ronald Reagan’s, have prioritized it, especially in relation to other forms of spending.)

Issue-Ownership (in Percentage Points), 1970-2011
Patrick J. Egan, Partisan Priorities: How Issue Ownership Drives and Distorts American Politics

In short, ownership goes to the party that “cares” more. “Because the GOP prioritizes national security and military spending ... it usually comes back to Republicans owning those sets of issues,” Egan says. And this issue ownership holds true despite opinions on specific policies. For example, although polls often show that Americans think the country spends too much on the military,, the mere fact that Republicans care so deeply about national security increases their perceived competence. (In this post I use “foreign affairs,” “security,” and “the military” nearly interchangeably to refer to general beliefs about foreign policy as it relates to domestic security, rather than international development or trade agreements. )

Party Priorities and Issue Ownership, 1972-2008
Patrick J. Egan, Partisan Priorities: How Issue Ownership Drives and Distorts American Politics

The clearest issue ownership poll data dates from 1970—around the time when the parties took on their current roles in terms of national security. In mid-century, the Democrats were arguably the more hawkish party. Republicans like Ohio Senator Robert Taft strongly opposed FDR as he edged the United States toward an active role in World War II. In the early ’60s, President Eisenhower’s famous farewell address warned against the insidious influence of the military-industrial complex. As late as 1976, Republican Bob Dole was decrying the “Democrat Wars” of the 20th century that killed enough Americans “to fill up Detroit.”

But the Vietnam War split the Democratic Party and flipped perceptions of security competence. The young anti-war protesters outside the 1968 Democratic Convention stood for a New Left that rejected LBJ’s militarism and was horrified by Vietnam. Senator Hubert Humphrey, a supporter of that war, emerged from the fractious convention with the nomination but lost the general election to Richard Nixon, and by 1972 nominee George McGovern was the head of a party that wanted butter more than guns.

Anti-war protestors in Chicago's Lincoln Park before the 1968 Democratic Convention. (Richard Strobel/AP)

Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow in the foreign-policy program at the Brookings Institution, says social perceptions are an important factor. “In the ’60s and ’70s counter-cultural movements, the Democrats became very associated in mainstream America with a sort of anti-militarism, the sort of street protests that you saw in ’68 and in the earlier ’70s,” he says. “That created a real gulf between the Democrats and the military, which has also translated into being seen as not being tough on foreign policy.” These perceptions are quite resilient: When Democrats held their 1984 convention in San Francisco, a hotbed of anti-Vietnam sentiment, Jeane Kirkpatrick took the opportunity to attack the “San Francisco Democrats” for “blaming America first,” a talking point Mitt Romney adapted decades later in his charge that President Obama had conducted an “apology tour.”

While the party paradigms remain essentially stable, the success and failures of individual presidents can affect ownership. In fact, performance can be more important than prioritization with foreign-policy issue ownership, Egan told me, because voters can closely track the performance of a field dominated by the executive branch, and because foreign policy has relatively clear-cut goals. People may disagree as to whether an expensive welfare program has been effective; it is generally easier to tell if America is winning a war.

In some ways, history supports the idea that performance is most salient. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson shared the blame for American escalation in Vietnam. The Carter administration’s mishandling of the Iran hostage-rescue mission and ineffective response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan further damaged Democrats’ reputation. On the other hand, President Reagan brought the Iran hostages home, successfully invaded tiny Grenada, and won many “Reagan Democrats” to his cause, a rightward shift in the grassroots mirrored by neoconservatives who lined up behind Reagan’s party.

But Republican presidents, too, have suffered setbacks abroad, even before the Iraq War. President Ford had to scramble to evacuate American personnel as Saigon collapsed, and Reagan ordered the Marines out of Lebanon after 241 Americans were killed by suicide bombers. Yes, Reagan’s presidency saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, but the president’s respective performances cannot wholly explain enduring Republican ownership.

In 2008, journalist Samantha Power—who is now U.S. ambassador to the UN—identified what is a both a result and a cause of modern American culture’s perceptions of Democrats: the framing of individual Democratic candidates as soft on security. The classic example is the response to Michael Dukakis riding in a tank at a campaign stop in 1988. An attack ad listed the various military projects and initiatives Dukakis had opposed, questioning his ability to “be our commander-in-chief.” The charge was clear and effective: Dukakis was pretending to be something he wasn’t.

Michael Dukakis tried to prove he wasn’t soft on defense in 1988. (Michael E. Samojeden/AP)

Bill Clinton, an anti-Vietnam protestor who sought deferments to avoid the draft, had his patriotism questioned in the 1992 campaign. The next two Democratic nominees had served in Vietnam, and yet both faced similar accusations. Power writes:

In the 2000 election George W. Bush, who had shirked military service, succeeded in presenting himself as more reliable on national security than Al Gore. This was despite Gore’s service in Vietnam, his seven years on the Senate Armed Services Committee, his four years on the House Intelligence Committee .… In 2004, too, even before the Swift Boat campaign, John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, had an uphill climb convincing voters that Democrats made reliable commanders in chief during wartime—even though a majority of Americans had already come to regret that the sitting commander in chief had chosen to wage war in the first place.

Demographics and even psychology play a role. Members of the military are more conservative than the public at large, largely because they hail from regions of the country that lean conservative. And in his seminal 1996 book Moral Politics, linguist George Lakoff asserted that people unconsciously relate to politics through the frame of the family: Conservatives represent the strict father; liberals the nurturing parent. That the GOP is generally tougher on crime and illegal immigration, stricter on drugs, and more supportive of gun rights may lead to the impression that the party is also readier to protect the nation from foreign threats.

All of these factors contributed to the association of conservatives with toughness and security, and accorded Republicans an issue ownership that endured from 1970 until the mid 2000s.

Then there was Iraq.

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If the collapse of the Soviet Union was modern America’s greatest foreign-policy triumph, the Iraq War was its biggest disaster. The failure to find the promised weapons of mass destruction and the cost in blood and treasure dealt a serious blow to Republicans’ security reputation. The backlash built slowly: Though American opinions on the war had already begun to slip by 2004, voters still preferred President George W. Bush, their “war president,” to John Kerry on handling the Iraq War and preventing terrorist attacks. The rally around the flag wasn’t over.

By the 2008 presidential election, it was a different story, with 58 percent of the country saying sending troops to Iraq was a mistake. In the Democratic primaries Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in part because he had not voted for the war. In the general election, the 10 percent of voters who ranked Iraq as their top issue went for Obama over John McCain, 59 to 39 percent. Meanwhile, Gallup found that for the first time since 9/11, Democrats were trusted more than Republicans to protect the country from international and military threats. Opposition to foreign interventions, in a switch, now meant security.

This sort of capture is known as “issue trespassing,” an attempt by one party to neutralize an issue owned by the opposite party. On the domestic front, Bill Clinton’s 1993 omnibus crime bill and George W. Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind Act are examples of legislation that pushed traditional issue-ownership perceptions back to at least neutral ground.

But it’s easier to shift the ground temporarily than to permanently gain ownership—as Democrats are discovering now. Egan says these flips are only temporary, “absent a seismic shift in the commitments of parties’ elites, voters and elected officials to specific issues,” and indeed, Democrats had to work to hold the advantage. Obama’s surprisingly belligerent Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech can be seen as an attempt to hold the ground. “The Obama people were concerned about this when he came to office in 2009, they were concerned about what had happened to Clinton and Carter, how they had been seen as weak, and wimpish, and anti-military,” Shapiro says. “That was one of the reasons why, even as the president ran against the Iraq War, he ran toward the Afghanistan war.” Obama’s CIA chief, Leon Panetta, knew Democrats had an image problem on Afghanistan. In his book Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward quotes Panetta saying, "No Democratic President can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it."

Democratic security swagger hit a new high when Obama ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. During the 2012 election, Democrats frequently quoted a comment by (Republican) Defense Secretary Robert Gates that sending in the Navy SEALS was a “gutsy call.” Joe Biden was fond of bragging that the case for Obama’s first-term success was simple: Osama bin Laden was dead and General Motors was alive. The president accused his rival, Republican Mitt Romney, of being “stuck in a Cold War mind warp.” A poll just before the election gave Obama the edge on foreign policy, national security, and the war on terror. The Democrats offered security, and they were in charge.

Events since the election suggest a return to the equilibrium. There has been no seismic shift in ownership; rather, the calamitous Iraq War and a Democratic president overseeing the killing of Bin Laden are best understood as catalysts of medium-term trespassing, events that temporarily outweighed underlying drivers of issue ownership. The anti-militaristic left has not disappeared—liberal criticism of drone strikes by one of their own is muted, but opposition to War on Terror tactics and the continued existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison is likely to resurface. On the right, the rise of a non-interventionist faction led by Rand Paul seems exaggerated, and the Republican Party still provides the nation’s leading hawks.

Though this administration has been willing to intervene militarily—in Libya, in Iraq, and, eventually, Syria—using force isn’t the same as projecting it. “Toughness is different than interventionism. It’s just sort of proved by interventionism,” Shapiro says. “What people want at all times from their president is a feeling that they are protected, a feeling that he has control over the events in the outside world that might affect them.”

The result is that even for Americans who agree with Obama’s individual policy choices, from ISIS to Ebola to Russian incursions into Ukraine—issues where American action has a limited ability to change the situation—the feeling of control and confidence is gone.

The best part for the Republican Party, Egan says, is that it doesn’t even have to remind voters it owns security. In other words, it doesn't take a conscious effort to get ownership to sink in. It’s when trespassing that it’s more difficult. He said, “Party members—whether it’s the party in government, or party activists, or party voters—survey data shows that all three of those aspects care more about the issues the party owns than the issues the party doesn’t … [Communications from a party] are authentic expressions of the party’s priorities.”

One such communication is emblematic of the Republican strategy: An ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee shows Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado saying, “ISIS is not an imminent threat.” The narrator responds, “Really? Can we take that chance?”

Messages like this spread fear, not promote new policies. But whether they highlight the menace of Ebola or ISIS, these ads raise the salience of an issue Republicans can bank on. “Democrats have already lost that advantage as the bad news from around the world never stops,” congressional scholar Thomas Mann, also of Brookings, told me. “It's hard to believe that news will get any better during Obama's final two years in office.”

As that news relates to the coming election, and the election in 2016, Democrats have reason to worry. Obama’s foreign-policy approval rating is at 31 percent, 11 points below his overall job approval—what was once a bulwark is now a millstone. The post-Vietnam pattern is reestablished. The Republican Party owns security once again. Chaos, it seems, has brought America back to equilibrium.