No Easy Way Out for Democrats’ Dilemma on National Security

Andrew E. Busch

December 1, 2002

It is, in retrospect, clear that national security was the key issue in the midterm elections of 2002 and the primary cause of the Democrats’ poor showing. What is not clear—but will become more clear in the weeks and years ahead—is whether they have learned anything from the experience.

The evidence for the centrality of national security in the election is overwhelming. Americans indicated by margins ranging from 40-37 percent (Gallup poll) to 41-17 percent (Wirthlin poll) that security outpaced the economy as the key issue. They also viewed Democrats as “too weak” on terrorism, by a 57-34 percent margin. Because of 9-11, national security also became an issue of personal security, allowing Republicans to nearly erase their deficit among women; indeed, more women than men rated terrorism as a higher issue than the economy. Finally, Republican turnout was much greater than Democratic turnout, which many analysts have attributed to the desire of Republican voters to support their commander-in-chief in time of trouble. In the end, at least two Democratic Senate candidates—Max Cleland of Georgia and Jean Carnahan of Missouri—lost explicitly and directly owing to national security, while a host of other Democrats at all levels went down with security as the backdrop.

This development took many observers by surprise. Democrats and many in the media assumed the economy would be the predominant focus of voters (though it is not clear Democrats would have won if it had been). Most campaign advertisements, except in a few select races, emphasized domestic issues. Even Rep. Tom Davis, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, argued weeks before the election that there was no single issue dominating the election. In many ways, national security—though decisive—worked its impact below the surface, like a strong undertow that moves the tides without being seen.

But move the tides it did. A key moment in the definition of the election came in late September when President Bush accused Senate Democrats of putting special interests ahead of national security by stalling the homeland security bill on behalf of their labor allies. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle responded by demanding a presidential apology for this “outrageous” claim. One suspects, however, that American voters found the claim less outrageous than did Daschle. To the contrary, Democratic conduct before and after the election was largely consistent with Bush’s claim, which is why Democrats are now seen as “too weak” on terrorism. In fact, the Democrats had—and have—two interlocking problems. First, their natural inclinations lead them to a position of relative weakness on national security. Second, because those inclinations are politically damaging, they are often forced to act against their inclinations in transparently political ways. Their choice is to appear weak or to appear overly-calculating on an issue which most Americans believe should be settled without partisan shrewdness.

Both of these faces were seen in the immediate aftermath of November 5. The day after the election, Daschle made two stunning statements which drive at the heart of the Democrats’ dilemma. First, in an amazingly straightforward fashion, Daschle actually confirmed the accusation which only a short time before he had labeled “outrageous.” Trying to explain the Republican victory, Daschle said “People were concerned about national security, and that precluded us from having the opportunity to break through on the issues that we cared most about—the economy, education, and health care.” In other words, Bush was right: Democrats really did not care about national security as much as they cared about satisfying their domestic constituencies. At the same time, Daschle concluded that the belated positive response of Senate Democrats to the Iraq resolution was good strategy because it was popular in the states where Democrats were locked in tight races. In essence, Daschle said, we did what we had to do to remain viable. Taken together, the message is: Terrorism and a nuclear-armed Iraq are mere distractions from the more essential task of expanding the welfare state, but we will humor the American people if that is necessary to help us keep our jobs. Can Democrats really be surprised that Americans chose not to entrust them with the reins of power in a dangerous time?

Daschle’s virtual admission that Bush’s criticism was on target has not been emphasized in the mainstream media, nor has it been juxtaposed against his (feigned?) indignation of late September. Nevertheless, Americans are not stupid. They took the measure of the Democratic Party at a time when seriousness is at a premium, and they found it wanting. They will continue to do so until either events cast doubt on Bush’s judgment and bring the latent pacifism of Democrats back into vogue, or until Democrats themselves are able to support strength abroad, and from conviction rather than calculation.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.