The Democrats & National Security


Since the Vietnam War the Republican Party has developed a reputation for having a superior approach to national security. Americans have long trusted the views of Democrats on the environment, the economy, education, and health care, but national security is the one matter about which Republicans have maintained what political scientists call “issue ownership.”

Partly, this is for particular historical reasons. President Eisenhower initiated US involvement in Vietnam, and President Nixon escalated the war in 1969 and kept US troops on the ground in a manifestly unwinnable mission until 1975. But John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were tagged as the primary culprits. President Carter was widely seen as having bungled the Iran hostage rescue mission and having responded ineffectually to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Although he substantially increased US military spending, he was never forgiven for his claim that Americans had “an inordinate fear of communism.”

President Reagan of course did more than any other person to entrench the Republican reputation for toughness on national security. He ran his election campaign against Carter’s apparent softness, brought the Iran hostages home upon taking over the White House, nearly doubled the US military budget, invaded tiny Grenada, and staged covert operations throughout Latin America and beyond. Many “Reagan Democrats” crossed party lines precisely because they saw him as more able to confront Communist threats, and the fall of the Berlin wall confirmed their view.

President Clinton, elected just after the cold war ended at a time when national security was not a dominant concern, never really recovered from having been branded a draft-dodger, alienating the military by his botched effort to integrate gays into the armed services, or presiding over the 1993 fiasco in Somalia. Even though US military operations in Bosnia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999 cost no casualties and largely ended ethnic cleansing in both regions, they were not traditional conflicts; NATO’s intervention was not seen as promoting vital national interests, and thus made little dent in the public understanding of Democrats’ competence in managing national security. Throughout the 1990s, the Democratic Party made only small progress in chipping away at what by 1999 was a thirty-point edge for Republicans on national security in public opinion surveys.

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, his help in brokering a deal to dismantle the nuclear arsenal of former Soviet republics, and his creation of binational commissions with Russia, South Africa, Egypt, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to deal with issues ranging from AIDS to disarmament. 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…

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