Bennett & Rosner: Democrats and National Security

June 3rd, 2010

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This piece was originally published in Politico.

Slightly more than 10 days ago, a U.S. airstrike killed Sheikh Said Al-Masri, Al Qaeda’s third in command. He was the highest level Al Qaeda operative to be “removed from the battlefield,” as the military puts it. The Wall Street Journal actually said in its editorial: “another success for the Obama administration.”

The Journal isn’t alone here. A national opinion poll by Democracy Corps and Third Way released Thursday shows that such battlefield successes are broadly popular – when the public knows about them. They serve to raise public trust in the ability of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party to handle national security.

This is also true for the fight against terrorism at home. When Democrats tout the administration’s effective response to the Times Square bombing, for example, a strong majority — 59 percent of likely voters — say they feel more confident about the party on national security.

Indeed, our survey – second in a series of joint in-depth analyses on national security attitudes – finds continuing opportunities for Democrats and progressives to strengthen their messaging on national security.

The public responds strongly when Democrats stress key aspects of their record over the last 18 months and their vision going forward. These are issues Democrats would do well to lean on going forward.

This even includes areas where the public has historically lacked confidence in Democrats, like leading the U.S. military. This new survey shows that when Democrats speak directly about their efforts for the troops — including increased pay, providing more time between deployments and putting better weapons into the battlefield — more than two-thirds of respondents say they feel more confident about Democrats’ handling of national security.

By contrast, the public is relatively cool to a range of messages that Republican leaders are now using on this. The best Democratic national security messages out-score the best GOP messages by a dozen points.

(The survey fielded May 15-18, before several events that could shape opinion on these issues occurred, including the administration’s releasing its National Security Strategy, the strike against Masri and the Israeli raid on the flotilla, but they are unlikely to change these results appreciably.)

In particular, we tested comments that House minority leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and minority whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have made recently, and they fared poorly.

Boehner’s claim that the Obama administration has been “lucky” that recent terrorist attacks in the United States have failed lags behind the Democratic message on the alleged Times Square bomber by 15 points.

Meanwhile, Cantor’s point that the Obama nuclear policy has “put America at risk” made 52 percent of likely voters less confident in Republicans, compared to only the 41 percent made more confident.

The Democrats’ message advantage is all the more notable because Republicans still retain a lead on national security issues overall. While a 53 percent majority approve of Obama’s handling of national security — down four points from our February survey — Republicans hold a 13-point lead over Democrats on the question of which party is more trusted on national security.

This is a drop from the 29 point trust gap that Democrats faced before the 2004 elections, but Democrats had effectively erased that in 2008. Its re-emergence underscores the need for Democrats to make their case more effectively.

Another factor eroding trust for Obama and the Democrats on national security is the fragile economy. The euro and Greek crises appear to have helped undercut recent signs of reviving economic confidence. Just 20 percent now express positive views of the economy, and Obama’s approval on the economy stays at 44 percent.

The public’s economic anxiety clearly affects confidence on national security. This survey confirms our February finding that a strong majority – now 58 percent – rejects the argument that “America remains the strongest and most influential country.” Instead, they say “America is losing its global leadership” as China and other countries grow economically and hold more of our debt.

The public continues to see U.S. economic strength as the strongest factor pulling down our world standing – well ahead of things the left and right typically cite, like “Obama apologizing for past U.S. policies” or “treatment of prisoners at places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.”

Accordingly, the only Republican message we tested that really lands with the public is on the economy.

But the administration’s new national security strategy speaks directly to these issues. It emphasizes the importance of “renewal” at home as an element of national strength. Democrats should follow suit, integrating their plans for economic revival into their narrative on national security.

That won’t come hard for most Democrats, who are comfortable on the familiar terrain of jobs and the economy.

But our survey suggests they must integrate a muscular message about U.S. successes in the fight against terrorism. Obama’s strategy of seeking to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” Al Qaeda is having an impact, as even some critics have acknowledged.

But if Democrats are to regain and retain public trust on security, they must speak out forcefully on these issues.

Matt Bennett is vice president and co-founder of Third Way, a moderate progressive think-tank. Jeremy Rosner, who served on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, is executive vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic polling firm.