Earlier this week it was reported that the grandees of the Democratic
Party advised John Kerry to steer his campaign away from national
security and on to the supposedly friendlier terrain of domestic
Although Kerry should certainly be using Bush's own record to hammer
him mercilessly over jobs, deficits, healthcare and the environment,
trying to run away from defense issues is a spectacularly bad idea, a
notion which Kerry fortunately seems to have grasped.
To the contrary, Kerry should borrow from practitioners of the martial
arts and let the force of Bush's parry become a self-defeating weapon
used against him. Indeed, if Kerry is smart, he can actually prevail
in a fight over security, turning apparent disadvantage into
advantage. Regardless of how skillfully he winds up doing so, he will
have to address this issue whether he wants to or not. But for at
least five very good reasons, Kerry must and should attack on this
This is true, first and above all, because he has no choice. Anyone
not fortunate enough to have been in a coma during the GOP convention
knows that Bush is staking the entire election on an appeal to public
fears of foreign threat. And, of course, he has to. What else is he
going to do, talk about his record creating jobs? Or the virtues of
handing our children a crushing deficit to pay off so that we can
party today? The civil liberties he has demolished? His healthcare
or environmental achievements?
To a very large extent this campaign will be about security, because
Bush needs it to be and because a compliant (when not
choreographed) media will amplify his jabs in this direction. This leaves Kerry two simple choices: respond or lose.
Second, security has become a Republican advantage only because
Democrats have let it. Bush's record on this issue is actually beyond
abysmal once one scratches only slightly below the surface. When it
comes to protecting Americans, he is, as Texans like to say, all hat
and no cattle.
The following are plain facts which indisputably add up to an America
less safe under Bush, not more: The Bush administration was warned
about the urgent threat of al Qaeda terrorism during its transition
briefings, and did not even convene an initial meeting on this issue
until eight months into his presidency. Bush was likewise warned in
August 2001 of a major impending al Qaeda attack and did nothing
(apart from take a month-long vacation). He promised to get Osama bin
Laden, and had apparent opportunities to do so in Afghanistan, but
instead pulled forces away to invade Iraq. This latter adventure has
created more terrorists, not less. It has also bogged down half of
America's land forces in a war with no end in sight, rendering them
unavailable should a real emergency develop elsewhere. The
administration's ham-fisted diplomacy has turned allies into
strangers, leaving America alone to fight its enemies. And, at home,
Bush has failed to adequately fund either first-responders or security
measures to protect vulnerable domestic sites like ports and nuclear
and chemical plants.
These are just the highlights - this list could go on ad nauseam, and
it is, in fact, quite sickening. But it also represents an
opportunity for Kerry to win this election. Kerry should outflank
Bush to the right, calling for tougher prosecution of the fight
against al Qaeda, beefed-up domestic security, and promising to be a
president who reports for duty, now as always.
Americans are nervous about national security, and partly for good
reason. Al Qaeda has shown its intent and its capability, and it is
not a pretty picture. Maslow was right, meanwhile, about the
hierarchy of human needs, wherein he located physiological and safety
needs at the base of his pyramid. It doesn't matter whether people
are uneasy about even their job or their healthcare plan, let alone
affirmative action or gay marriage. If they are fearful of the Huns
massing at the gates, they will be looking first and last for
protection of their physical security. For too long, national defense
has been a Republican issue. In 2004, however, Bush has handed Kerry
an opening to make a persuasive argument that he can keep them safer.
Kerry can and must grasp that opportunity.
The third reason for him to take this fight to Bush flows directly
from the second. People are frightened, and they're looking for a
leader with the toughness to attack those who would attack us first.
It's pretty hard to demonstrate such martial bona fides as a legislator, let alone a liberal senator from Massachusetts. But a presidential candidate can show his mettle in the
(increasingly) brutal scrum of American campaign battles. If John Kerry can't evidence to the electorate his ability to throw a
punch against George W. Bush, there's no reason to expect they would entrust him with their security in a world which includes the
likes of al Qaeda.
Out-toughing Republicans on security issues presents a fourth
advantage, as well, which is that Democrats can begin to shake their
reputation for wimpiness, which will otherwise continue to hobble them
in any given American election.
How they acquired such a reputation is really not such a mystery.
Reagan employed the most fearsome military machine in human history to
liberate Grenada from those famously tough Cuban engineers (though in
polite society, we don't mention that the Lebanese were returning the
favor at the same time). Then ol' Poppy Bush really took it to the
Grand Armee of Panama, while crushing Iraq in war of 100 hours and
about as many American casualties. Not to be outdone, his kid has
made a real hash of it in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Let's face it, these were manly men - warrior's warriors - showing
that no Grenadian dictator or Leban... (well, never mind that
one) ...was going to push around the world's only superpower. Compare them to those fey Democrats and it's no wonder Americans
trust Republicans with their security. The only wars Democrats could ever manage to fight were World War I, World War II, the
Cold War, Korea and Vietnam (not to mention the Cuban Missile Crisis).
In short, believing that the Republicans are the party of national
security makes about as much sense as believing they are the party of
fiscal discipline. Oh, um - oops! - Americans do actually believe
that! Voters need to be reminded of this history, and the Party needs
to burnish its credentials on security. Fortunately, since there is a
legitimate need for defense, and since Bush is failing utterly to meet
it, Democrats can accomplish this without becoming jingoistic
hypocrites in the process.
Finally, telling the truth about national security is nothing less
than a public service, and one which will also ultimately benefit
progressive causes and candidates. The most horrifying, Orwellian
fact to emerge from the insane debacle of the Iraq invasion was the
fact that some 70 percent of Americans came to believe that Saddam
Hussein had been a party to 9/11.
This, of course, was precisely what the Bush administration intended,
and the figure, not coincidentally, about matches the level of support
for the war at the time it commenced. Though some of the public is
now presumably a bit wiser for the experience (perhaps Lincoln was
right about fooling the people), the frightening conclusion, thirty
years after the lessons of Vietnam, is that a body politic this
unsophisticated about issues of great national urgency will always be
a friend to reactionary politics.
For all these reasons, Kerry should not shy away from a fight on
security issues, but should rather embrace one with great gusto. If he
doesn't do so, he might as well give the millions in his campaign
treasury to the Europeans or the Chinese. His campaign won't be
needing the money - it will have already lost. But if there is a
second Bush term those countries will require all the help they can
get to balance against the unchained rogue elephant trampling about
The author is assistant professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York, e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org