In the Republican mind, electoral success comes partly from running to the right of the Democratic nominee on matters of national security. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush: All won at least one presidential election against an opponent that they out-hawked. The GOP nominee in 2012 is likely to attempt that same approach. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Michele Bachmann, John Bolton -- they've already boxed themselves into that posture. It's what the GOP establishment wants, too. Talk-radio hosts, national-security writers at National Review, and many former Bush officials are united in their insistence that Obama is weaker on terrorism than they'd like.
The irony is that running to President Obama's left on national security is much better politics, no matter what Bill Kristol tells you.
Here are three reasons why:
1) John McCain tried to run to Obama's right on national security as a septuagenarian war hero with decades of foreign-policy experience and the recent success of being among the first to call for "the surge" in Iraq. If that didn't work when Obama was an untested newbie, seen by a faction in his own party as unready to take a "3 a.m. phone call," why would it work for a Republican with less experience running against the commander-in-chief who killed Osama bin Laden?
2) In a presidential debate, it'll be impossible for the Republican to make Obama look excessively dovish. The president can retort that he sent more troops than Bush to Afghanistan, talk at length about drone strikes, list all the terrorists killed on his watch, mischievously allude to bin Laden, maybe even come up with another terrorist scalp during the campaign via drone attack or raid.
3) There are, however, some devastating critiques available to any Republican able and willing to make them. Imagine a nominee who a) issued a biting, accurate take-down of security theater, and inflamed voter passions by becoming a demagogue on naked airport scanners and intrusive pat-downs; b) Insisted that Libya was an imprudent, unaffordable war that had nothing to do with American interests, and was illegally launched (a critique that can be made in campaign ads with Obama's own words); c) tore into Obama for asserting the power to assassinate American citizens in secret, hammering on the obvious imprudence and frightening potential for abuse; d) pointed out that we'd be a lot safer if we redirected money now spent on nation-building in Afghanistan to almost any half-way effective, achievable counterterrorism measure); e) picked one or two of the most egregious civil-liberties abuses going on and pinned them on Obama; f) and generally recognized that while "you realized we were right once you took office" may be cathartic for a subset of Republican insiders and political junkies, it amounts to "we're the same," whereas "you broke many of your promises and are doing things you rightly deemed abhorrent, how can we ever trust you" is a far more effective critique.
Would the hawkish GOP base revolt if its standard bearer tried this strategy? Hardly. A lot of them are war weary, averse to nation-building, ready to freak out about the government spying on their phone calls and e-mail accounts, and uninclined to go deeper into debt by prolonging our foreign wars. Their secret wish is for a truce on national security that reorients our focus toward the economy and the deficit. The only faction that wouldn't go along: the neocons and the Dick Cheney, Andy McCarthy, David Addington, John Yoo wing of the Bush administration (groups with some overlap). Given the wrongheaded beliefs that they hold, it's to their credit that they'd refuse to embrace the expedient position.
I'd never advocate the critiques above if I didn't basically believe them. But I don't think that I am letting my libertarian beliefs cloud my political analysis. It just isn't effective to run on implausible narratives, like "Obama is weak on terror," and the Republicans trying it now are twisting themselves in knots. Whereas the strength of calling Obama a promise-breaker, or a target of civil-liberties groups on the right and left, or someone who violates the Constitution even as he himself articulated it, is that it's rooted in fact.
There are Republicans who could make all those critiques, whether the libertarians who are already doing so, someone like Mitch Daniels, who has been mostly silent on matters of national security, Mike Huckabee, credibly anti-torture for religious reasons, or other candidates besides. A lot of partisan Republicans don't have any actual national-security convictions. They just go along with whatever program their side is offering at a given moment, such that terrible abuses in the Clinton years became national-security imperatives under Bush. They might as well think Obama's policies represent fresh outrages -- they'd be the mirror image of Obama voters unbothered that their man does things they abhorred from 2001 to 2008.
Running to Obama's left on national security also jives better with the inevitable domestic critique of his presidency: that he is a big government ideologue so bent on increasing the role of the state in American life that he doesn't care if implementing his preferred policies reduces your liberty. It's sorta weird to argue as much, and then say, "And his problem on national security is that he is too solicitous of so-called 'rights' and unwilling to aggrandize enough power to himself."
Despite the powerful case for running to Obama's left, it is unlikely to happen, both because of the kinds of positions already staked out by the majority of likely contenders, and because of the disproportionate influence extreme hawks have on conservative discourse. It goes beyond Commentary, The Washington Post opinion section, and The Weekly Standard. National Review's national-security writer imagines that President Obama leads a faction of leftists who are allied with our Islamist enemy in a grand jihad against America! What a waste -- good politics and good policy so rarely go together, and it's a shame not to take advantage of the opportunity.
Obama is now a war on terror hawk -- and his wings need clipping.
Image credit: Reuters
Want the news first every morning? Sign up for National Journal's Need-to-Know Memo. Short items to prepare you for the day.