Tarnishing Democrats as “weak on defense” is no longer the walk in the park for Republicans that it used to be. That’s because Republicans lost more than an election — they lost ownership of a core issue that is essential to the GOP’s brand identity.
Barack Obama has been as an effective Commander-in-Chief who, in spite of criticism from the left, has maintained a strong defense and security posture—so effective, in fact, that the Republican Party might consider suing for infringement of their—dare I say—“intellectual property.” Dr. Shanto Iyengar, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and director of Stanford’s Political Communication Laboratory, told Improperganda: “Obama’s record as Commander-in-Chief and the killing of bin Laden have probably contributed to a whittling away of the Republican advantage.”
The“weak on defense” charge, as political weapon, grew out of the Vietnam War. This narrative, I would wager, is lost on most voters under 40, who don’t reflexively regard Democrats as an anti-war party, which is how Republicans quite effectively branded them from roughly 1968 to 2008. Republicans have viciously mocked Michael Dukakis, attacked Bill Clinton for being a bearded “draft dodger,” assailed John Kerry’s character and massacred his military service.
That was then. Over the past 12 years, voters’ perceptions of the Party’s respective strengths–those “core competencies” for which they have reputed expertise and credibility–have been changing. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll gauged the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney brands, evaluating their “reputational” competencies. (For a company, an equivalent inquiry would be, do we compete on price, service, quality, or distribution?) The poll showed that Romney scored higher in handling the deficit, and that voters were more trusting of Obama to protect Medicare. Most telling, voters were significantly more trusting of Obama to handle a major crisis; said another way, they preferred that Obama be the guy in the White House to answer the storied 3 a.m. phone call.Voters were also more trusting of Obama to manage international affairs. Obama’s encroaching on Republicans’ turf. He’s in their grill.
What’s at work here? In short, eight long years of Bush, during which he squandered Clinton’s surplus in favor of unnecessary wars and, in the process, also squandered his Commander-in-Chief credibility. The IMPROPERGANDA campaign waged by the Bush Administration tarnished the Republican brand, and chipped away at the Party’s ownership of the “strong on defense” message.
In the 2008 election, voters responded by electing a black “community organizer” to keep them safe instead of former POW John McCain.
They trusted Barack Obama, one-time editor of the Harvard Law Review, to manage our obligations in Afghanistan and Iraq over Pentagon insider John McCain.
For Commander in Chief, they trusted a guy who never served over a guy whose family had Admirals growing out of its ass.
This summer, Republicans predictably tried to make hay out of Obama’s defense budget, claiming that it put the country at risk. What was unusual about the fearmongering was, well, that this time it didn’t work, didn’t resonate, didn’t stick. We see a similar phenomenon with Benghazi. Sean Hannity was beside himself, convinced it was a homer when it was just a deep fly-out to center field. You could hear the disappointment in his voice, his exasperation over the scandal that refuses to stick. Whatever voters may think of Obama, the majority don’t assign evil motives to his actions or decisions. He’s not trying to pull a fast one, or at least they don’t perceive him that way. In order to work, a smear narrative must, at some level, reinforce voters’ preconceptions about said smear subject. Voters, it turns out, largely trust Obama in international affairs and are more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt. Therefore: no scandal. Sorry Sean.
A few words of caution: I don’t want to suggest that Republican operatives are done playing the “weak on defense” card. Wishful thinking, right? They will still taunt Democrats, but at least for the time being, the “weak on defense” charge will continue to see diminishing returns. It is too early to know if Democrats have neutralized the Republican advantage on this issue, temporarily hijacked it or indeed own it. My preference is for a term coined by the University of Missouri’s John R. Petrocik, who argues that political parties can “lease” an issue from the other party.
If that’s what Obama and the Democrats are up to, I hope they have an option to own it.