Democrats seek profile for wartime
Presidential hopefuls strive to alter image of weakness on security.
WASHINGTON — As Democratic presidential hopefuls vie for an edge in a newly Gore-less field, they are competing for credibility in one area in particular: national security.
From Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut visiting US troops in the Persian Gulf next week, to North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who Wednesday gave a speech on homeland security, would-be candidates are striving to present themselves as strong wartime leaders, while carefully carving out areas of difference with President Bush.
The backdrop of terrorism and a looming war with Iraq means that the 2004 campaign, at least early on, is likely to emphasize homeland defense and foreign policy.
Yet surveys show the public regards Democrats as weaker on these issues - a factor that many believe hurt the party in this fall's midterm elections, and could prove even more damaging in the presidential contest.
Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 despite having no military or foreign-policy experience and running against a war veteran who had just led the country through the Persian Gulf War.
But experts caution that this campaign is likely to be very different, for one reason: Sept. 11 brought national security concerns home to the public in a new and immediate way. As a result, many Democrats believe, they will have to address those concerns head on if they are to have any chance of taking back the White House.
"The national security debate was transformed by 9/11," says Sandy Berger, former national security adviser under President Clinton. "The fact is, the American people want a president who is going to be aggressive and proactive."
For potential nominees, the most immediate challenge may be overcoming their party's image of being soft on defense.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the Democratic Party was arguably seen as the war party, with Democratic presidents leading the country in both world wars and in Korea. Yet ever since Dwight Eisenhower beat Adlai Stevenson in 1952, "Republicans have easily had the upper hand on national security issues," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
In part, this stems from positions the Democrats have taken, such as opposing increases in military spending, or pushing nonmilitary solutions to conflicts. Many Democrats voted against the Persian Gulf War, for example - though many of those same Democrats also voted in favor of an Iraq war resolution this time around.
The difference between the parties has also been reinforced over the years by campaign rhetoric and images such as Ronald Reagan's forceful attack on the "Evil Empire" - or Michael Dukakis's unintentionally comic ride in a tank.
"I think the Republicans are better than the Democrats at the rhetoric of patriotism," says former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the new Democratic chair of the commission investigating Sept. 11. "They come across - as a party - as more robust."
Republicans have learned how to campaign more effectively on national security, Mr. Hamilton says, by using select wedge issues to magnify their differences with Democrats. In 2000, Bush emphasized disagreements over a national missile-defense system, for example, while in 2002, Republicans focused on the Senate fight over the homeland security bill.
Indeed, some analysts argue that Democrats' problems with national security are not so much a matter of substance as of tactics - that the party has simply been outmaneuvered. The homeland security bill, for example, was originally a Democratic proposal, generated by Senator Lieberman. Yet by the fall, it had somehow been recast as the Bush administration's idea, with Democrats standing in opposition to the bill because of labor issues.
Likewise, by simply supporting the president in the war on terror, the party missed opportunities to criticize the administration during the last campaign. "Bush had some blemishes in the war on terror," such as the Tora Bora bombing campaign, and the mishandled Middle East peace negotiations, says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution. "More adept political tactics would have put Democrats closer to being on an even footing."
Analysts say one of the best credentials Democratic contenders can have going into the next campaign may be actual military experience, in part because it lends authority to any criticisms of Mr. Bush in that area. (Bush's own military service was limited to a stint in the Texas Air National Guard.)
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran whose campaign website features a photo of him in uniform, has already been one of the most aggressive critics of the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Afghanistan. And Gen. Wesley Clark, a former NATO commander with no political experience, is even being touted as a potential candidate.
"By the time the election comes around in '04, Bush will have had four years' experience fighting terrorism - so Democrats are going to have to have someone who doesn't look like a neophyte on the issue," says Loch Johnson, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.
Still, a military background didn't help Georgia Sen. Max Cleland hold onto his seat. Senator Cleland - who lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam - was defeated this fall, in large part because of his vote against the homeland security bill.
Even former war heroes can be perceived as soft on defense, says Mr. Pitney: "Just ask President McGovern."