Arkedis: Democrats Must Own the National Security Narrative

Posted April 13, 2010 at 11:31am

With the health care bill safely signed into law, I hope you’re feeling better about yourselves, Democrats. While this November could be tough, at least progressives have one victory to avoid a complete wipeout in the election, right?

[IMGCAP(1)]Or is that two victories?

You bet it is. Even as health care and the economy have commandeered our attention, the Obama administration has quietly put together a sterling record on national security. So why are Democrats so down in the dumps? As one party strategist put it, Democrats “are behaving like the president has a 30 percent approval rating. On these [security] issues, Democrats inherently believe that no one will believe our arguments.”

There’s plenty for progressives to cheer. President Barack Obama has proved to be a smart, decisive commander in chief. He has focused on Afghanistan instead of Iraq, by changing the American leadership in Kabul, embracing a new counterinsurgency strategy and sending more troops to back it up. Top Taliban leaders have been arrested in recent weeks, including military commander Mullah Baradar.

On top of the terrorism accomplishments, the White House just this week signed a new arms control treaty with Russia and is inching China closer to supporting sanctions against Iran.

At home, the FBI successfully thwarted a major plot by Najibullah Zazi to bomb the New York City subway, the most serious terror attempt on U.S. soil since 9/11. And though the Christmas Day bomber nearly lucked into a successful attack, the administration has shown forceful resolve addressing continued intelligence shortcomings.

Everything hasn’t been perfect, of course — deciding on a trial location for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shiek Mohammed has been messy, but considering that the knock against the president is that he wasn’t ready to lead, it’s a relatively small mark against him.

As a result, an increasing majority of Americans believe Obama is keeping us safe. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll showed that public approval for the administration’s handling of terrorism is up 3 points, to 56 percent.

A recent Third Way/Democracy Corps poll found that the majority approved of Obama’s performance on national security. Fifty-eight percent approved of his handling of Afghanistan, 57 percent were positive on his leadership of the military and 55 percent liked that he’s “improved America’s standing in the world,” among other similarly upbeat numbers.

But here’s the challenge for Democrats: There’s a difference in perception between the president and his party.

The Third Way/Democracy Corps poll also showed that traditional party stereotypes on national security are creeping back. On the question of which party would do a better job on national security, a generic Democrat trailed a generic Republican by 17 points, a 15-point increase since last May.

Consequently, Republicans are salivating at the prospect of campaigning on national security. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could hardly contain himself after new Sen. Scott Brown (R) campaigned heavily on terrorism in the Massachusetts special election.

And Democrats have only themselves to blame. The security gap can partly be attributed to Democrats’ inability to communicate effectively on national security issues.

Take this response from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Mirandizing the Christmas Day bomber: “He stopped talking because he was trained to stop talking. … If someone isn’t gonna talk, it doesn’t matter if you’ve read them their Miranda rights.”

While campaigning, Brown declared, “In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them.”

The former engages by defensively arguing legal nuances. The latter goes on offense by appealing to emotions. Guess which is more effective?

GOP strategist Frank Luntz has said, “A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.” It’s the conservative playbook in a nutshell. Fortunately, progressives don’t have to be “factually inaccurate” to come up with a compelling story — the facts are on progressives’ side.

The key is selling that story. Progressives must use facts to communicate emotionally.

Progressives speaking about national security should say, with numbing repetition, the following truths: that progressive policies have the Taliban on the run, al-Qaida crippled, Iran isolated, nukes secured, terrorist plots squashed and pirates crushed. Compare that to the recklessness of conservatives who got us into the wrong war against the wrong enemy at a high cost.

Progressives stand for strong, smart security policy. Obama has terrorists in retreat and American prestige on the rise. Democrats need to begin owning their successes if the American public is to give credit where it’s due.

Jim Arkedis is director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s National Security Project and writes daily at ProgressiveFix.com.