Responding to me, Matt writes:
the politics of security are largely about image (the politics of everything are), but the important thing to note is that you can't just whip up some issues and an "image" cooked to order when it comes time to run a presidential campaign. You need to have some idea of what it is you're trying to market, and some experience with various people actually trying to market it. And perhaps most important of all, one key element of "image" is not looking uncomfortable discussing these topics, and one easy way to do that is to actually be comfortable and confident that you know what you're talking about and understand where you want to take the country.
That's absolutely correct. One reason it's so much easier for Republicans to be judged tough on security is that any of them can do it, no experience required. Ronald Reagan was a former actor and Governor of California who was elected during the height of the Cold War. His foreign policy background didn't exist. George W. Bush was a former Governor of Texas who mispronounced the names of foreign leaders and hadn't taken any trips overseas. The reason guys like Reagan and Bush can emerge so strong on national security is that, as empty foreign policy vessels, they're filled by the reputation their party already holds. Democrats, conversely, don't have a party held in high esteem on national security to fill in their gaps. That's why, in the last election, Kerry's war heroism and Clark's four stars figured in so highly. Their resumes, we thought, could fill the hole left by our party's poor image on the subject.
This freedom to relax on foreign policy issues allows Republicans to better target candidates to their weaknesses. Their last few national security candidates, war heroes Bush and Dole, lost soundly, because they didn't gain anything through their heroism that the Republicans didn't already have. Conversely, when Republicans run candidates focused on remaking the party's domestic image, they've done much better. Reagan's critique of big government was quite effective, as was Bush's creation of "compassionate conservatism." It's about knowing their strengths and weaknesses, with the party superstructure providing enough strength that individuals can focus on weakness. Democrats enjoy a similar advantage on domestic issues but, contra Digby, I think that hurts us more than it helps. If Americans can be led to fear, most will quickly and happily vote against their domestic ideals in order to elect the leader they figure will leave them safer.
I'm of the opinion that the only way to finally end our deficit on foreign policy is to elect a Democratic president who shows himself strong and competent on international affairs. Carter didn't. Clinton's first four years were unfocused and his last three were consumed in scandal. A future leader, thrown into a 9/11-like situation or compelled to enter a war against a foreign aggressor, would have the opportunity to instantly transform the party's reputation on the subject. But that's not all we need to do. Matt's post talks about a standing room only address Clark gave on foreign policy. Reid and Pelosi have created a brand new National Security Advisory Group. We need to build up the party structure, so when the moment comes, our members will be able to capture it. More to the point, when the crisis ends, Democrats need to be engaged enough in international issues to retain their newfound image of strength. If we remain unfocused and detached, obviously preferring to focus on urban renewal and entitlement programs, we'll just watch our new strength seep through our otherwise-occupied fingers.