Dems can gain ground with security

September 29th, 2010

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This piece was originally published in Politico.

The “Pledge to America” that House Republican leaders released last week offers little in the way of new ideas about national security – mostly procedural bits, like a pledge to hold hearings on Iran or changes in visa paperwork. That is a sea change from the days when the first Republican talking point involved going after Democrats on national security.

The GOP’s newfound timidity is explained in a new poll from our organizations – Third Way and Democracy Corps. It shows why Democrats should welcome a fight on national security rather than shy from it.

Like other recent polls, this one (by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner ) shows a harsh electoral environment for Democrats — including on aspects of national security. Voters are most concerned about economic anxieties now and this also undermines confidence about the country’s standing in the world.

Yet the new survey highlights five points where Democrats can gain ground on national security if they use the right arguments.

First, the survey shows that majorities of likely voters continue to give President Barack Obama solid marks on these issues: 53 percent approval of his handling of “national security,” 52 percent on fighting terrorism, 51 percent on leading U.S. military. These are all well above his 45 percent overall approval rating from likely voters, and his 43 percent rating on the economy.

Indeed, even as the electoral environment tilts against Democrats, the president has recently gained ground on key areas of national security. His job approval is up 7 points on the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” since our May survey, thanks to his breakthrough in helping to resume direct talks. He is up 17 points, to 58 percent, among likely voters who follow international affairs closely.

His approval rating is also up on Iraq, where a 51 percent to 37 percent majority feels more favorable about Obama due to his late August announcement that the U.S. combat mission in Iraq has ended.

Second, the survey shows a reservoir of support and patience regarding the president’s most difficult national security challenge: the war in Afghanistan. A 50 percent to32 percent majority says his strategy “is achieving results.” The figure is even higher among liberal Democrats (58 percent) and voters under 30 (62 percent) – groups that some observers said would abandon the president on this issue.

Third, the public believes Obama has done better than George W. Bush in handling the two hot wars the nation is fighting. A 47 percent to 39 percent plurality says Obama has handled Iraq and Afghanistan better than Bush. Opinion is evenly split, 44 percent to 45 percent, among likely voters — though they lean strongly Republican on voting intention.

Fourth, and partly as a result, the public responds more strongly to Democratic arguments on national security than Republican. The strongest Democratic message we test (about steps by Obama and the Democrats to strengthen the U.S. military) outscores the best GOP argument by 7 points – even though voting intentions tilt Republican.

Similarly, a message highlighting Democratic efforts to combat terrorism – “using our special forces and Predator planes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen to capture or kill hundreds of al Qaeda extremist allies over the past 19 months” – outscores a GOP argument on terrorism by 6 points. Pro-Democratic margins are even stronger among independents and other target voters.

Fifth, voters are skeptical that Republicans are offering anything new on national security. A 49 percent to 33 percent plurality of likely voters agree that, “Republicans today mostly want to go back to the kind of national security policies we had during the Bush-Cheney administration,” rather than offering ideas that would “go in a new direction.” Having experienced the Bush-Cheney policies – mismanaged wars; an overstretched military; estrangement from our allies; torture policies that undermined our world standing – the electorate is not eager for a re-run.

Democrats still face big challenges on national security, however. By an 18 point margin, likely voters say Republicans would do a better job on national security. This is way down from a 29 point gap in 2003 — but still large and worrisome. The survey also shows that the public is eager for Obama and the Democrats to clarify the military mission in Afghanistan.

But saddled with the Bush-Cheney national security record, and armed with no big new initiatives or policy directions, congressional Republicans do not have a dominant position on this. Maybe that is why they had so little to say about national security in their “Pledge.”

Matt Bennett is vice president and co-founder of Third Way, a moderate 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.