How Obama stole the GOP’s issue

Once a GOP strength, it shouldn't be surprising that it's suddenly become a potent political weapon for Democrats

Topics: Opening Shot, Barack Obama, Foreign policy, Mitt Romney,

How Obama stole the GOP’s issue (Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

The glee from Democrats, frustration from Republicans, and amazement from commentators has been easy to detect as the extent of President Obama’s advantage on foreign policy and national security has become clear.

There is obvious volatility to the unfolding events in the Middle East, and the possibility exists that developments in the coming days might somehow prompt voters to reconsider Obama’s leadership. But for now, Mitt Romney is gaining no traction from his effort to portray the unrest as an indictment of American policy under Obama –and may actually be hurting himself. A CBS News/New York Times poll released on Friday was the latest to give Obama a double-digit edge on the question of which candidate would better handle foreign policy.

The spectacle of a Republican White House nominee straining – and failing – to score political points on national security is understandably jarring to anyone who’s watched U.S. politics for the last decade. George W. Bush’s 9/11 exploitation and success at neutralizing John Kerry’s war hero credentials will be remarked on for years to come. And even in 2008, when he racked up the biggest share of the popular vote for any Democrat since LBJ, Obama succeeded in spite of most voters’ belief that John McCain would handle terrorism better.

There are several good explanations for why Obama has turned the tables on the GOP. The killing of Osama bin Laden is the obvious one, along with the end of the Iraq war and the lack of any major domestic terrorist attacks. At their convention in Charlotte, Democrats rubbed these successes in the face of their Republican foes while giddily deriding Romney for his international inexperience and the disastrous world tour he took over the summer; surely, this helped reinforce Obama’s advantage. But there’s probably a simpler reason why Democrats have suddenly become the national security party: They control the White House and voters tend to feel safer with the status quo.

One of the effects of the Bush years was to encourage the impression that Republicans enjoy a permanent edge on international issues – that voters automatically associate them with strength and Democrats with weakness. But these assumptions are far less embedded than you might think, because you don’t have to go back that far to find another election in which the Democrat was positioned as Obama now is.

That was in 1996, when Bill Clinton coasted to reelection over Bob Dole. Clinton enjoyed an edge over Dole on just about every issue (besides some “character” questions), foreign policy included.

In a way, this was a remarkable development. When he’d first run in 1992, Clinton had been on the wrong side of an epic foreign policy mismatch. The incumbent Republican, George H.W. Bush, had presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, and the successful Persian Gulf War. Clinton had spent a dozen years as the governor of a small Southern state and had no obvious foreign policy credentials. (In fact, he’d gone to embarrassing lengths to avoid expressing an opinion about the Gulf War, ducking reporters for weeks before it began in January 1991, and then – upon being cornered – finally allowing that he agreed with the arguments of war opponents but probably would have voted for it anyway.) A September 1992 poll gave Bush a staggering 53-point advantage on the question of who would handle foreign policy better.

But by ’96, that deficit had vanished, with a CBS News/New York Times poll finding a majority of voters expressing confidence that Clinton would deal wisely with an international crisis – and barely more than 40 percent saying the same about Dole. A majority of voters also said they considered Clinton a “strong leader” when it came to making foreign policy.

What turned things around? The simple answer is that Clinton had become the status quo. He’d taken heat early in his term over the Battle of Mogadishu and his efforts to reinstall Jean Bertrand Aristide as Haiti’s president, but he also helped broker and enforce an end to the Bosnia war and launched occasional missile strikes against Iraq (a popular policy among Americans who overwhelmingly believed the U.S. had erred by not removing Saddam Hussein from power in ’91). Dole certainly tried to criticize Clinton’s record, but most voters weren’t willing to buy it, not when their general perception was that Clinton had been a competent international leader.

Even more striking is the example of 1980, when Jimmy Carter was unseated by Ronald Reagan. As they have regularly done for three decades, Republicans are today invoking Carter as the preeminent symbol of failed foreign policy leadership, someone whose mistakes Obama is (supposedly) emulating. This image of Carter has been widely accepted in the years since his presidency. But believe it or not, in ’80 foreign policy was seen as the one issue where he had a clear leg up.

This speaks to the power of incumbency. Just consider the saga of the American hostages in Tehran. When the embassy was seized in November 1979, Carter was on the verge of losing the Democratic nomination to Ted Kennedy. But Americans – and Democrats in particular – instinctively rallied around the president, whose poll ratings soared. Without the hostage crisis, Carter likely would have been defeated by Kennedy, and voters continued to hold out hope through the fall of ’80 that Carter would broker some kind of deal to bring the hostages home.

As president, Carter was also well positioned to stoke fears about Reagan, who was dogged by widespread fears that he’d be quick to start a nuclear war. Carter played up foreign policy in the fall campaign, calling Reagan’s hawkish views “very dangerous and disturbing” and seeking to focus voters’ attention away from the economy. To a degree, it worked, as Carter remained close in the polls well into October. From a news report that month:

According to Andrew Kobut, an official with the Gallup Poll, foreign policy has played a decisive role in the campaign so far. Carter began to make progress in the polling results after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, he said That is when public confidence in Carter’s handling of foreign policy issues began to soar.

It’s not automatic that an incumbent president will enjoy a foreign policy advantage.  Had he been the Democratic nominee in 1968, when Vietnam was spiraling out of control, LBJ certainly wouldn’t have had one. Nor would George W. Bush had he been on the ballot in 2008. But it’s a lot easier for an incumbent to win on the issue than a challenger, as Obama and Romney are both discovering now.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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