DNC Dispatch: Obama, the Democrats, and National Security

by Travis Moore, reporting from the Democratic National Convention in Denver (cross-posted at On Day One)

The last year in which the public trusted the Democratic party more than the Repulican Party on the issue of national security was 1967.

Although we’re mired in both the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even though only 21% of the American public believes that we’re winning the War on Terrorism, national security remains the Democrats’, and Obama’s, Achilles heel.

Witness the following from a Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosener Research poll from earlier this year:

* 45% of independent voters rated Senator Obama as “not tough enough” on national security, compared to Senator McCain.
* Who would do a better job of “ensuring a strong military” (Republicans–57%; Democrats–28%)
* Who “respects the military” (Republicans–54%; Democrats–26%)

So how can progressives make inroads on the national security debate?Enter the Truman National Security Project. It bills itself as “the nation’s only organization that recruits, trains and positions a new generation of progressives across America to lead on National Security.” At an event titled, “The National Security and Defense Policy of the next president,” former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig broached how Obama hopes to make inroads on McCain’s bread and butter issue.

Danzig and Perry suggested several dimensions to Obama’s strategy to win the National Security debate:

1. Continue to connect the energy crisis (and, relatedly, global warming) to the national security debate (including the war on terrorism).
2. Shift the “war” focus from the gains in Iraq to the failures in Afghanistan.
3. Talk about “character,” and specifically, the temperment of John McCain

Whether their strategy will succeed remains to be seen, but history seems to suggest that for each of these items, Democrats have their work cut out for them.

With respect to energy, Democrats have failed to find solid ground, and have gotten slammed on domestic oil drilling. They can’t seem to decide what their policy on drilling should be, let alone common talking points or party message.

Shifting the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan would seem like a strong idea, but anyone who can think back to 2004 will remember that this was one of the principal arguments of John Kerry–that we “took our eye off the ball” in Tora Bora–but it never really stuck with the public.

On the character issue, much will depend on how negative the Obama campaign is willing to go, and whether this message will resonate with the public– neither of which I dare try to predict. Only time will tell, I suppose.