Obama and McCain Must Convince Voters They Are Strong on National Security

Historically, Democrats are seen as less credible on military issues.

Demonstrators jam the streets outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, November 25, 1979, displaying a cardboard effigy of President Jimmy carter (right) and a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Demonstrators jam the streets outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, November 25, 1979, displaying a cardboard effigy of President Jimmy carter (right) and a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini.

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The opposition to Iraq, in fact, is a big reason why the GOP has lost so much ground with the public on who can best protect national security. A double-digit Republican advantage a couple of years ago has eroded into Democratic parity, or better. A recent Rasmussen poll found that 49 percent of voters trust the Democrats more on national security and the war on terrorism, while 42 percent trust the Republicans more.

Balancing diplomacy. "McCain is totally out of step with where the country is," says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. "The country thinks if the war is going well, we should begin reductions of our troops responsibly—stability is a reason to reduce troops, not a reason to stay."

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says voters no longer believe in Bush's approach. "People want a change," Garin says. "They want a better balance between diplomacy and military power, and they want us to be more conscious of America's reputation in the world. Protecting America's security is still a threshold requirement for anybody who voters will consider for president. But the formula for doing that is no longer the Bush formula"—and McCain sounds too much like Bush, he says.

Yet McCain does have some built-in advantages. If he emphasizes his courage as a POW in Vietnam and his long record of military service, he could contrast himself favorably to Obama's inexperience. "We believe every day we talk about national security is a good day for John McCain," says a McCain strategist. But he admits: "People are sick of the war, and he can't just offer blood, sweat, and tears. He has to show that he will bring it to a successful conclusion and it's not open ended."

Obama is also vulnerable because many of his positions on national security issues seem vague, such as exactly what he would do in Iraq and Iran, Zelizer says. Obama must "cross a threshold of trust" and establish credibility on the fundamental issue of keeping us safe, Zelizer says, or voters won't listen to him on other issues where he might have an advantage over McCain, such as the economy and healthcare.