It is very apparent that much of mainstream America still believes that the Republicans are strong on national security. These are the people who believe that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi won’t hesitate to personally invite Osama bin Laden to Washington for "peace talks" once a Democrat occupies the White House. Now, while you and I know that this is a crock of shit, it doesn’t change the fact that national security is entrenched as one of the few remaining strengths of the Republican Party in the American mindset.
In order to win the Presidency and to secure additional congressional seats in 2008, Democrats must work toward changing American perceptions on this issue. And to do that, Democrats must not only be strong on national security, but they must appear strong on the issue.
Fortunately, half the battle appears to have been won: Democrats simply are not and will not be weak in terms of national security. In 2006, the Democrats managed to get elected three high-profile veteran candidates in the form of Webb, Sestak, and Murphy. The Republicans, on the other hand, only ran one—and he lost. At the same time, Republicans have ruined the military, and in the process shown the country that they couldn’t be any weaker on national defense if it were a plank in the Party platform. So substantively, it appears that we’ve already won this battle.
But the more difficult part, perhaps, remains. That part is to convince the American people of this fact. Because, while we’ve made considerable progress over the past two years, Rasmussen reported last month that there is still a huge segment of the Fox News-viewing population that sees Democrats as undisciplined, weepy, terrorist apologists. It is absolutely critical then, that Democratic organizations work toward correcting this image problem.
Therefore, I see three areas in which Democrats can work to further brand themselves as the party of national defense—and to portray that image to middle America:
Anti-Bush administration groups like VoteVets, along with others, must continue to utilize Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in TV and radio commercials, as well as on billboards, in print media, and on the internet. But here’s the catch: We don’t need to see troops playing the victim. Example:
(Amputee wearing civilian clothes) "I. . .trusted my government. And then. . .(soldier looks down). . .they sent me to Iraq. I never knew why. . . ."
At the same time, we don’t need to see ads with crying mothers, either. While these two types of ads elicit sympathy from a certain demographic (the "non-soulless" demographic), they are largely perceived by Red America as whiny. Republicans (usually chickehawks) are often heard responding to ads like these by saying things like, "Well, nobody said war was easy. This just goes to show why we have to win."
Instead, we need aggressive ads that show strength and fighting spirit. An example of this would be the first ad run by VoteVets in 2006. The ad highlighted the fact that Republicans voted against full funding for body armor. You can view it here. While I won’t say it was responsible for ending the senatorial careers of George Allen, Rick Santorum, and Jim Talent, the ad was devastating to their campaigns.
I’m no psychologist, but I would argue that the body armor commercial was successful due to several visceral and subconscious, but also very effective, cues: 1.) The soldier is seen firing an assault rifle, 2.) his tone of voice is authoritative, perhaps even a little angry—not meek and victimized, 3.) he mentions Vietnam—in effect tying current Republican policies to that failed war, and 3.) his body language is aggressive. In short, he looks and acts like a stereotypical soldier. And in the process, he’s railing against the Republican candidates.
We need more commercials like that. Or something like this:
(Show montage of Iraq action photos—billowing smoke, yelling troops, etc. Hear voiceover with emphatic, assertive tone.) These are pictures of me in Iraq. I busted my ass out there. I went out on raids every night and helped capture half a dozen terrorists. But my job in fighting terrorists was made more difficult by the incompetent Bush administration. I had to fight with shoddy equipment on all four of my deployments. (Cut to veteran) Do me a favor next time and vote Democratic.
Ads in print media and on the internet need to be tweaked as well. I envision a billboard on Central Expressway in Dallas (or any other Republican stronghold) that just says,
Combat Veterans Agree: Republicans are BAD for the Military
It seems to me that people, whether subconsciously or not, are turned off by weakness. Therefore, it stands to reason that we shouldn’t fall into the trap of showcasing what many perceive as such. Democrats need to be aggressive.
2. Presidential candidate messaging
Warranted or not, the American public worries a great deal about national security. For that reason, the Democratic candidates need to talk it up—all the time. They need to give speeches where they lay out ways in which they plan to "support the troops." They need to talk about the virtues of diplomacy. They need to talk about re-building the military to what it once was. (Obama’s speech the other day is a great example of this.) And they need to do these things with an Iraq veteran in tow for every appearance.
Democratic Presidential candidates should go for the jugular with regard to the Republican frontrunners. They should attack Giuliani for being a draft-dodger who doesn’t even have the support of his 9/11 firefighters. As for his foreign policy experience, they should listen to what Wes Clark had to say about him:
"He has no relevant experience that’s in any way useful to be commander-in-chief. He hosted the U.N. and had a large police force."
Neither should they shy away from McCain just because he flew an airplane in Vietnam and has years of foreign policy experience. Instead, they should attack him for having this wealth of experience and for still being so fucking stupid about it. Invade Iraq? Sure. Surge? Great idea. Walking in the market? Awesome. A real foreign policy whiz that guy is.
There is blood in the water.
3. Utilization of military veterans—Congressional and otherwise
Like they’ve been doing, Democrats need to continue pressing forward with their agenda by using military veterans to spread the message. Democrats need to use veterans for campaign speeches, radio addresses, and cable news shows. Jim Webb, Joe Sestak, Patrick Murphy, and all the other Democrats with military service need to be out front on this until the ’08 elections. And somebody needs to find a job for Wes Clark.
At the same time there are a number of high-profile Iraq veterans—recently retired or separated—who must be utilized at every turn. Paul Eaton. John Batiste. Tammy Duckworth. Jon Soltz. Paul Rieckhoff. Kevin Tillman. And there are many others. No Republican claim to national security superiority should go unchallenged by at least one of these soldiers. Doing so will expose just how big a weakness national defense actually is for Republicans.
Democrats should not play defense with this issue and assume that the Republicans are simply going to implode over the Iraq issue. Why leave it up to them? Rather, this is the time to really drive the dagger, once and for all, into the heart of the "Republicans are strong on national security" meme. Playing defense might keep some Republicans from going to the polls, but it’s not going to win over any converts. Attacking, on the other hand, gets the word out. It motivates the Democratic base and, more importantly, it helps to give paranoid Red Americans that warm and fuzzy feeling about voting Democratic for the first time in their lives.
There’s no reason why a person can’t be environmentally friendly, socially liberal, and pro-choice, while at the same time supporting a strong military. Because, like anything else, a military is simply a tool. No matter how large and powerful a military becomes, it can be used for good or ill, depending on who’s in charge. And in this country, it always remains under the control of the Congress. So I see no paradox in advocating for a robust military—and I certainly have no problem with stealing away from the Republicans their very last bit of self-respect.
What George W. Bush has forgotten, is that this military—a military that he has used with jaw-dropping recklessness—is actually not his military. It’s ours. And we mean to take it back.