If George W. Bush is not to be elected to a second term practically by acclamation, the leaders of the Democratic Party—and others skeptical of the president’s ability to pursue a truly sensible and realistic foreign policy—will have to do a better job than they did in the 2002 midterm elections of convincing the American public that they are capable of offering a viable alternative. Those elections will no doubt receive a lot more analysis. But one thing is already abundantly clear: the Democrats’ failure to convince anxious voters of their ability to protect national security played an important role in their electoral defeat. The traditional midterm swing against the incumbent president did not materialize—the sputtering economy notwithstanding—because a central question in voters’ minds was their security, and they overwhelmingly trusted Republicans more than Democrats to safeguard it.
The Democrats’ strategy of conceding the foreign policy field to President Bush and trying to move the debate from the issue of national security to corporate scandals, social security, or prescription drugs was bound to fail. According to internal party polls, at least half of Americans asked say that national security and terrorism are their main preoccupations. With a Republican edge of 40 percentage points on these matters (when those polled were asked whom they trusted most to protect their security, 59 percent said the Republicans, 19 percent said the Democrats), Democrats cannot hope to make up the difference on economic and social issues. This leaves matters in 1992. George W. Bush, even less experienced on foreign policy than Clinton, did exactly the same thing in 2000.
Moreover, there are large constituencies in key swing states that are very interested in defense issues. In 2000, Democratic pollsters told Al Gore that defense ranked no higher than twelfth on a list of voter priorities. At the risk of sounding disrespectful of the professionals, that has to be hogwash. Military retirees, veterans, and the 6 million people employed today in defense-related work did not put defense low on their list of political priorities. Some 30 million voters fall into one of these categories (not counting spouses or other immediate family members). Had Gore and his running mate, Joe Lieberman, been credible enough on national security issues to convince a few thousand more of the 2 million such voters in Florida to go their way, they would have won the election. The frequently repeated Gore/Lieberman soundbite that “we have the best military in the world” did not sway many voters, since it was true but also obvious. In 2002, Democratic incumbent senators Max Cleland of Georgia and Jean Carnahan of Missouri lost their seats (and the Democratic Party lost control of the Senate) in close races where security issues may well have been decisive. Their party was depicted by Republicans as more concerned with protecting federal workers than pushing for the speedy creation of a department of homeland security.
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.