How could a decorated war hero, experienced senator and outstanding debater lose a presidential race turning largely on national security issues to an incumbent who badly miscalculated both the urgency of the main war he pursued during his first term and the way to win the peace? And given some of the harsh realities now facing the U.S. armed services, particularly the protracted and dangerous deployment to Iraq, how did Republicans find their most loyal demographic, not among the Bible Belt voters of the South and West or the wealthy businessmen along the coasts, but rather among U.S. military members and a large percentage of the more than 25 million veterans? Answering these questions is critical to the Democratic Party’s prospects as it looks ahead to elections in 2006 and 2008. The Democratic Party must reestablish its national security bona fides among key constituencies if it hopes to win back the White House or Congress.

National security rightly emerged as the predominant issue of the 2004 election. Some 34 percent of the electorate cited either Iraq or the War on Terror as the policy issue of greatest concern, a significant jump from the twelve percent that cited “world affairs” in 2000. Among that 34 percent, sixty percent favored President Bush, with an overwhelming 86 percent of those most worried about terrorism favoring the incumbent. In the electorate at large, about 58 percent said they most trusted President Bush to wage the War on Terror effectively, to Senator Kerry’s 40 percent. All this even though in nominating Senator Kerry, Democrats believed they were offering the country a viable alternative to a president who misdiagnosed the Iraqi threat, went to war with a weak coalition and failed to plan properly for the aftermath of invasion.

The recent election made clear, however, that there is a profound anxiety over how Democrats generally manage issues of war and peace. Party leaders’ instincts were wrong. Americans did not want the politics of antiwar protest. They wanted a leader who convinced them he had a better plan for the course of the nation at a crucial moment in its history.

In a small but telling example of how the party tends to think about national security, when Democrats thought they had a chance of winning the recent presidential elections, they got much more excited about the topic of who should be Secretary of State than Secretary of Defense. It was widely known that capable individuals such as Richard Holbrooke and Joseph Biden were interested in becoming the nation’s top diplomat, and it was obvious throughout the campaign how close both were to Senator Kerry—yet one struggles to recall a single name mentioned to run the Pentagon. As a military officer told one of us, “Don’t you find it surprising that at a time of war the Democratic Party spends no time thinking about who the Secretary of Defense should be?”

Especially in the post-9/11 context, voters want to know that Democrats will have the backbone to attack America’s enemies before they can strike the United States. And they want to be convinced that Democrats know enough about the nation’s armed forces and the tough challenges of leadership to use military force effectively and decisively. In the last election, Democrats as a party offered little more than international cooperation and multilateralism as their prescription for matters of national security. This was complemented by a “laundry list” approach to national security policy, presenting a broad agenda addressing energy independence, civil conflicts, HIV/AIDS, Mideast peace and other matters. These are important, to be sure, but an effective and well-communicated approach to the “hard” security problems of the day was lacking. It is too early to tell if this problem has been rectified under the party’s current leadership, but all Democrats, even those whose hearts are primarily in energy or trade or development policy, need to recognize that they cannot cobble together a winning platform from various bits and pieces—a military pay raise here, a call for multilateralism there. Democrats must have a comprehensive, credible approach to national security that resonates with the military vote.