Can the Dems Win on National Security?

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No one on Capitol Hill, least of all the Democrats, seems to remember the last time Americans trusted both major parties equally to keep them safe. Ever since 9/11, the Republicans have rarely failed to capitalize on their de facto position as the party of national security. But with six months to go before the mid-term elections, the battle over national security and politics may well be at a tipping point. Last week an AP-Ipsos poll found that American adults were evenly divided on whether Democrats or Republicans could do a better job protecting the country. Likewise, on Monday a Washington Post-ABC News poll found Americans split down the middle when asked which party was better qualified to handle terrorism.

Mind you, these days saying the Democrats are just as qualified as Republicans to handle national security is not exactly a compliment. Over the last six months, the GOP has seemed to have nothing but lapses on that all-important front, from the deteriorating situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, and the Dubai ports deal, to new revelations about the President's role in the leaking of pre-war intelligence, his warrantless wiretapping program and, last week, Congress' inability to pass a border security bill.

But if Republican failures on national security have opened up a political vacuum, the Democrats don't appear to be filling it. Ask a House or Senate Democratic campaign committee staffer who is the party's national face on security issues and you'll get this: Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island or Congresswoman Jane Harman of California. Reed is a serious, intellectually honest veteran and an expert on defense issues in the Senate, while Harman is an ambitious Harvard Law School graduate who is the ranking minority member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Both are credible and respected inside the Beltway, in their way. But they are far from household names, and neither inspires confidence outside Washington.

Still, most Congressional races are won or lost at the local level, so for now the Democrats may be able to get away without a commanding national figure like Sam Nunn or George Mitchell. And they certainly have plenty of impressive local candidates on tickets around the country for the fall, including more than 40 military vets. One good example is Joe Sestak, decorated three-star admiral, family man, and naval commander straight from Central Casting. On his website, just above the picture of him in Navy whites briefing President Clinton in the Oval Office, is a typical resume line: "As the [George Washington] Battle Group Commander, he led an international coalition force of 30 U.S. and allied ships and 15,000 sailors, exercising command of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as senior diplomatic engagements throughout Southwest Asia, Europe and Africa." A giddy Congressman Rahm Emmanuel, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says Sestak, "neutralizes the national security issue."

Local faces may work for now, but in 2008 Democrats are going to need someone with instant, coast-to-coast credibility on national security. Hillary Clinton has worked hard as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, but no matter how well-versed she is in military affairs, she still hasn't earned the kind of instinctual trust needed to earn votes on that front. The governors Mark Warner and Tom Vilsack don't inspire that kind of confidence either. Only dark horse Wesley Clark has the kind of credibility that Dems want, but he has other political shortcomings.

And while Democrats may dream that the problems in Iraq have permanently tipped the balance on national security, don't bet on it. It rarely takes them long to shoot themselves in the foot on the issue, and more importantly, much of the disillusionment seems to track President Bush himself. At the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies yesterday, Bush delivered another shaky performance, at one point laughing off a well-considered question about whether any law controls military contractors in Iraq. If the Democrats want to make America's crisis of confidence in Republican competence last, they'll have to act quickly. After all, before they know it, the Republican face of national security could be John McCain.