At the Democratic convention in Charlotte on Thursday evening, Vice President Joe Biden recycled a slogan he's often repeated on the campaign trail. "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive," he reminded a roaring crowd.
The line is more than just a crowd-pleaser. As Democratic pollster Jeremy Rosner notes, the fact that half of Biden's distilled pitch relates to foreign policy speaks to the rare advantage the Democratic Party has on national security in 2012, thanks to accomplishments such as ending the war in Iraq and killing Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders. An Ipsos/Reuters poll last month found that 51 percent of registered voters believe Barack Obama is stronger on foreign policy than Mitt Romney, while 35 percent believe the Republican candidate has the edge. The president also has a 47-38 advantage on national security and a 50-35 advantage on the war on terror.
"This is not so entrenched in the DNA of the modern Democratic Party," Rosner tells Foreign Policy. He points out that when his firm, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, asked respondents at the end of 2003 which party would do a better job on national security, 54 percent selected the GOP, while 25 percent chose the Democrats (in the 2004 election, George W. Bush racked up double-digit leads over John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, on Iraq and terrorism). That 30-point gap narrowed at times during the 2008 election, Rosner adds, and now the balance has shifted in the other direction.
Rosner says the last time a Democratic presidential candidate enjoyed such a foreign-policy advantage was 1964, when Lyndon Johnson argued that he was far more capable than Republican challenger Barry Goldwater of navigating the Cold War and averting a nuclear crisis. On the campaign trail, Goldwater had gotten himself into trouble for saying that America's intercontinental missiles were "not dependable" (Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara claimed the comment was "damaging to the national security") and that NATO should amass a stockpile of "small conventional nuclear weapons" ("How 'conventional' was the 'small' weapon over Hiroshima?" retorted Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance).
The low point for Goldwater was the Johnson campaign's famous "Daisy" ad, in which images of a little girl picking petals gave way to a mushroom cloud, as Johnson warned of the deadly stakes of nuclear war and a sober announcer encouraged Americans to vote for the president. In his convention speech, Johnson made sure to trumpet his foreign-policy credentials:
I report tonight as President of the United States and as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces on the strength of your country, and I tell you that it is greater than any adversary. I assure you that it is greater than the combined might of all the nations, in all the wars, in all the history of this planet. And I report our superiority is growing....
There is no place in today's world for weakness. But there is also no place in today's world for recklessness. We cannot act rashly with the nuclear weapons that could destroy us all.
Just four years later, the Democratic advantage on national security had subsided as the Vietnam War soured. But the Democrats sure were brimming with confidence (and wisecracks) again on the final night of this year's convention. Just look at some of the rhetoric from Thursday's speeches. Here's Obama:
So now we have a choice. My opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy.
But from all that we've seen and heard, they want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly.
After all, you don't call Russia our number one enemy -- not al-Qaeda, Russia -- unless you're still stuck in a Cold War mind warp.
You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can't visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.
Bravery resides in the heart of Barack Obama, and time and time again I witnessed him summon it. This man has courage in his soul, compassion in his heart, and a spine of steel.
Kerry, meanwhile, chastised Romney for not mentioning the U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan in his convention speech, and called the GOP candidate and his running mate, Paul Ryan, "the most inexperienced foreign-policy twosome to run for president and vice president in decades." And that wasn't all:
Mr. Romney -- here's a little advice: Before you debate Barack Obama on foreign policy, you better finish the debate with yourself!
"President Mitt Romney" -- three hypothetical words that mystified and alienated our allies this summer. For Mitt Romney, an overseas trip is what you call it when you trip all over yourself overseas. It wasn't a goodwill mission -- it was a blooper reel.
Expect to hear much more of this rhetoric as we enter the final months of the campaign. But if 1964 has taught us anything, it's that a national-security advantage, once secured, can prove fleeting.
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