With the death of Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama has found and killed the most wanted terrorist in history. After the successful operation, with no American casualties, you might think that the public's well-established tendency to trust Republicans more than Democrats on national security will finally be reversed.
But it won't be. Here's why: The image of Republicans as tougher than Democrats on America's enemies doesn't spring from either of the parties' record on foreign affairs but from identity politics. Last month, a Rasmussen poll showed Republicans enjoying their biggest advantage in voter trust of any issue on national security, a 19-point spread. This comes despite their harboring of the isolationist wing of American politics and the fact that historically, the biggest cuts to defense spending have come under Republican presidents (Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush). White swing voters perceive Republicans as stronger on defense because it is just one manifestation of their position as the party of white American nationalism.
Politicos generally point to the 1972 election and the Democrats' brief, disastrous embrace of the peace movement as the turning point in national-security politics. But the election of 1968, in which Richard Nixon appealed to the "silent majority" and pledged to restore "law and order," was the watershed moment. Nixon didn't have a more hawkish platform than Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who backed the administration on Vietnam and saw his poll numbers rise when President Lyndon Johnson halted the bombing. But in portraying Republicans as the defenders of patriotism and the left as dirty hippies ready to burn the flag, Nixon set Republicans up to outflank Democrats on nationalist appeals for a generation.
In some campaigns, Republicans have couched this appeal in fiscal terms (Reagan's opposition to high taxes and the social programs that coddle apocryphal "welfare queens"), sometimes in terms of fighting crime (George H.W. Bush's infamous Willie Horton ad), and sometimes in terms of fighting American enemies abroad (George W. Bush in 2004). The object of their demagoguery changes -- from communists to African Americans to gays or immigrants to Muslim extremists -- but the message is always the same: that Republicans are the most vociferous in their denunciations of the enemies of traditional American values.
To voters sympathetic to these visceral appeals, the actual facts of foreign policy don't matter. Reagan abandoned Beirut after 241 service members were killed by a Hezbollah truck bomb that struck their compound there in 1983. Neither he nor George H.W. Bush responded militarily to Libya's bombing of Pan Am 103, which was the largest terrorist attack on Americans before September 11, 2001. But, thanks to his rhetoric of patriotism, fervent anti-communism, and traditional American social values, he is revered as a hero by right-wing hawks. Likewise, George W. Bush's failure to capture bin Laden or defeat the Taliban is less important to his fans than his stark moral language and tonal swagger.
Obama, who, in his address to the nation Sunday night, avoided the kind of belligerent language that Bush might have used, cannot claim the mantle of America's defender for culturally conservative voters, regardless of his record. It's tempting to blame this on the particulars of Obama's biography. But Democrats have vainly tried before to assuage those biases, nominating Southern white men (Bill Clinton, John Edwards), Vietnam veterans (John Kerry), and even someone who was both (Al Gore) to their presidential tickets, to no avail. A specific candidate's biography, just like his actual record on the issues, does not win Democrats the votes of nationalists, because nationalists view Democrats as their ideological opponents.
Already conservatives have begun spinning bin Laden's execution as an example of Obama's lack of aggression. Writing on Commentary's blog, D.G. Myers complains that Obama recalled the sense of national unity in the wake of the 2001 attacks and urged its restoration. "The triumph of getting bin Laden, for [Obama], was apparently diluted by the sense of unity that had been lost in the intervening decade," Myers asserts. The subtext -- Obama is a wimp who enjoys holding hands more than killing terrorists, notwithstanding the fact that he just killed one -- is a standard Republican national-security message. No matter how uncooperative the world's actual events are to their frame, Republicans will find a way to make them fit.
Sunday, the night of bin Laden's death, also happened to be the eighth anniversary of Bush's infamously premature "Mission Accomplished" speech on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. You might expect Commentary, the house organ of neoconservatism, to avoid mentioning such an embarrassing episode, but Myers actually compares Obama's address to Bush's and -- surprise, surprise -- he says Bush's is the better by far. "Bush's theme was liberty. ... He used the word and its partner freedom [sic] twenty times in the speech," Myers writes.
This illustrates how the conservative mind works on foreign policy: What matters is not objective success at defeating America's enemies. Nor is it freedom that has actually advanced throughout the Middle East this spring, because both of these events happened during Obama's tenure rather than Bush's. What matters is rhetoric and attitude. What makes conservatives feel secure is seeing their president prance around in an Air Force flight suit, bragging that America has won. A sober address that expresses sorrow over what the "war on terror" has cost us, by contrast, doesn't make them want to pound their chests and shout "USA!" That is the partisan divide on national security, and it isn't going away.