Historians trace the Democrats' credibility gap on national security back to the "who lost China" debate in 1949. The takeover of the mainland by Mao Zedong during the administration of President Harry Truman caused angry recriminations among conservatives for many years. But that was only the start of the finger-pointing. Over the decades, Republicans have found many ways to portray the Democrats as weak on defense and lacking the toughness to protect the country. Only recently has that image changed, largely because of the unpopularity of the Iraq war launched by President Bush and closely associated with the GOP.
It was another unpopular war, in Vietnam, that caused the downfall of President Lyndon Johnson, who declined to run for re-election in 1968 amid rising antiwar ferment. Historians think he escalated an unwinnable conflict in Indochina, showing bad judgment on a crucial national security issue rather than subjecting himself to conservative criticism that he "lost" Vietnam, as Truman had "lost" China.
In 1972, when the hawkish Republican Richard Nixon was seeking a second term, the Democrats nominated the antiwar Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, but McGovern's dovishness helped send him to a humiliating defeat. As the Democratic majority in Congress turned against the war in the 1970s, Americans gradually became convinced that the party was "unwilling to use force overseas," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, author of the forthcoming Washington Warfare: The Politics of National Security in America Since World War II.
In the late 1970s, Democratic President Jimmy Carter was widely seen as naive in dealing with the Soviets, who invaded Afghanistan on his watch, and in dealing with the humiliating Iranian hostage crisis in 1980. That year, Ronald Reagan popularized the notion of "peace through strength"—a theme that the GOP has used ever since. Throughout the Reagan presidency, many Democrats argued that he was a "cowboy" who was too bellicose and military-minded. But his second-term partnership with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the unraveling of Soviet communism shortly after he left office created the impression for many that Reagan was correct and his Democratic critics were wrong.
Winning formula. Democrat Bill Clinton found a way to win the White House in 1992, even though he had avoided military service in Vietnam as a young man and the incumbent Republican, George H. W. Bush, was a World War ii hero who had led the nation to victory in the Persian Gulf War. Clinton was able to establish enough credibility on national security to be taken seriously as he focused his campaign relentlessly on the weak economy, which he blamed on Bush. This was the top concern for most Americans. As president, Clinton used military force in limited ways and in coalitions with other nations, such as for peacekeeping missions and to combat rogue regimes in eastern Europe. Clinton's limited use of force as well as his focus on the economy helped convince Americans that he was on the right track.
But in the 2004 campaign, the Democrats were unable to convince voters John Kerry was the best candidate on national security, largely because of America's worry about the threat of another 9/11. Presidential nominee Kerry was pilloried as a vacillating dove who couldn't be trusted to keep America safe from terrorism, even though he was a decorated veteran of Vietnam. George W. Bush won.
Obama's argument. Today's situation may be different because most Americans aren't happy with the Iraq war and blame President Bush for it. Republican candidate John McCain is being billed by Democratic opponent Barack Obama as marching in lock step with Bush in his commitment to the seemingly endless conflict. "The Republicans have lost credibility on this [national security] because of the Iraq war," says historian Robert Dallek. "Obama's judgment was it was a bad decision to go into this war," Dallek adds, and that has earned him considerable support from a war-weary public.
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.