For Republicans, the recent U.S. presidential election was supposed to be 1980. They would paint President Barack Obama as Jimmy Carter -- weak on the economy and weak on national security. High unemployment and low growth? Check. National security? Democratic presidential candidates -- from Carter to John Kerry -- were often hobbled by public doubts about their fitness to protect the United States from foreign threats (see: "Dukakis, tank").
But not this year. For the first time in decades, Democrats had a presidential candidate with an advantage on these issues. Obama entered the 2012 election with a successful foreign-policy record: The U.S. war in Iraq was over, the war in Afghanistan was winding down, Osama bin Laden was dead, al Qaeda's top ranks were decimated, Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi was toppled, and an international coalition had been assembled to impose the toughest-ever sanctions on Iran.
Americans have taken notice. As recently as 2003, Democrats trailed Republicans by 29 percentage points on which party voters trusted more on national security. But on Election Day this year, voters trusted Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, equally on national security -- and they trusted the president 11 points more on the broader category of international affairs. This represents a historic turnaround.
This reversal reflects not only the president's strong record, but also the incoherent positions of Romney and his Republican allies. Sometimes, they returned to the neoconservative recklessness of the George W. Bush era -- banging the war drums on Iran and calling for the indiscriminate arming of Syrian rebels. At other times, Romney and his surrogates sounded frozen in the Cold War, calling Russia America's No. 1 geopolitical foe and referring to the Czech Republic as Czechoslovakia. Romney and the Republicans also argued that debt was America's biggest challenge, even as they proposed spending trillions more on defense than even the Pentagon has requested.
Now the question is: Can Obama and his party retain that national security edge in the face of old doubts about the party and new global challenges?
The Democratic Party shouldn't rest easy on its national security laurels. Focus groups conducted by the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner during this year's election show the public's trust in Obama on national security has not yet erased their doubts about his party. Swing voters, while saying they were "pleasantly surprised" by Obama's strength on handling global challenges, said they still saw the Democratic Party as a party that lacks skill in commanding the military, is too slow in recognizing foreign threats, and bends too much to public opinion rather than having a clear strategic vision.
If Obama and the Democratic Party are to maintain and strengthen their newfound standing on national security, they should heed three key lessons from Obama's national security record over the past four years:
First, they need to continue demonstrating that they understand the needs and perspectives of the military. Obama has done this well -- spending time with the troops; personally meeting the fallen when they arrive at Dover Air Force Base; showing unstinting support, along with the first lady, for military families; and above all, showing real regard for the advice of his military advisors.
Showing concern for the military does not mean giving it an unlimited budget. The public understands that as the United States ends the wars, it is time for a leaner, more modern military -- even if the Republican Party does not. It is instructive that in this year's Senate race in military-heavy Virginia, Republican George Allen focused his campaign against Democrat Tim Kaine on the case against Pentagon budget cuts -- and lost. Yet Democrats do need to show that they take the Pentagon's readiness concerns seriously and that they are committed to maintaining the most advanced military on the planet.
Second, Democrats shouldn't hesitate to use military force when absolutely necessary. They must support methods of projecting and deploying American power -- including drones and special operations forces -- that are both effective and economical. That means, for example, that if al Qaeda affiliates are popping up in places like Yemen or Sudan, Democrats should be prepared to take the fight to them where they are. And it means that in limited circumstances, like the revolution in Libya, the United States should be prepared to join its allies in using force to come to the aid of people fighting in support of U.S. strategic interests and shared values. Democrats should also emphasize diplomatic strategies that can achieve America's goals, like the Obama administration's current approach to Iran and its pivot to Asia.
Third, Democrats need to amplify their vision of America's role in the world. Obama has chartered a new course for the 21st century: He envisions an America unafraid but uneager to use force, an America committed to advancing democracy around the world but without Bush's blunt-force approach, and an America that recognizes that change can carry both great promise and great risk for the country and its interests. Democrats need to build on this vision by showing that they will not pull back from the world as America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end and will not defund international engagement at a time of tight resources -- that, instead, they will use the U.S. military, diplomacy, alliances, and moral suasion to make Americans safer and more prosperous.
One presidential term -- even a very successful one -- hasn't been enough to completely erase doubts about Democrats and their ability to lead on security. But two such terms might be, as long as Democrats approach security issues with seriousness and heed the lessons that voters are offering.