Mary Knox Merrill/staff
From the time the Iron Curtain fell across Eastern Europe, Republicans have pretty much had a lock on the national security issue.
But the drawn-out Iraq war has eroded that credibility. For the first time in at least a decade, polls show that Americans trust the Democratic Party more than the GOP on the crucial issue of America's defense.
On Wednesday night, the Democrats will try to turn those perceptions into votes when they present their vision for a tough, new foreign policy that transcends partisan labels, according to the Democratic National Committee. The case will be made by vice presidential pick Joseph Biden.
Still, if history is any guide, Senator Biden will have a challenge cut out for him. Four years ago, decorated veteran John Kerry tried to shore up his party's credibility on national security when he "reported for duty" and stressed national security during his convention speech. He ended up actually dropping by one percentage point in the polls.
In 2008, the GOP's presumed nominee, John McCain, is a war hero and former POW. He outpolls Barack Obama on the national security issue by four or five percentage points. Among military veterans, who tend to take strong stands for national security, McCain beats Senator Obama by as much as 20 points.
While the economy has eclipsed national security as voters' No. 1 concern, it still ranks as a top issue this election. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the continuing terrorist threat of a reconstituted Al Qaeda, and the tarnished US reputation abroad are central factors in Americans' unease with the current direction of their country.
But in presidential politics, personalities and voters' "gut feelings" about the candidates often matter more than a party's perceived advantage on any specific issue – even when it comes to the Democrats' current advantage on national security.
"Democrats have a generic advantage on national security largely because of George Bush, and the Republican brand is associated with him," says Scott Rasmussen, president of the polling firm Rasmussen Reports. "But McCain is distinctive enough and has enough credibility on his own that he'll always be seen as the stronger candidate on national security issues."
The selection of Biden clearly shores up the Democratic ticket on foreign-policy and security matters. As a longtime member and now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he's been a witness to most of the major global conflicts of the past three decades – from Vietnam to 9/11. He's also a respected expert on terrorism, international narcotics trafficking, and crime. But all that national-security credibility may not translate into national-security votes for the Democrats.
"In the office, when governing, [a vice-presidential pick] does matter because now it's more a game of teamwork with the president," says Dan Coen, founder of Vice Presidents.com, which offers information on US running mates. "But on the campaign, the vice president lends almost nothing: Nobody's going to vote for No. 2."
But that doesn't mean No. 2 can't help the ticket. Mr. Coen refers to another of Biden's attributes this way: "He's an attack dog with a growl and a smile."
And tonight, one of Biden's main challenges will be, in effect, to bark in a way that would be inappropriate for Obama to do so.
"What the Democrats have to do more than anything else is knock John McCain down, and that's why it's good for Biden to do that and not the nominee," says pollster John Zogby. "They have to state unequivocally that John McCain is the third term of George W. Bush … and illustrate that we are less safe than we were."
Even some conservative foreign-policy experts say that such a task won't be all that difficult. They compare this election to the 1960 presidential race with Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Republicans had been in the White House for eight years during which they "pretty much owned" the national security issue, according to Jay Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation. But the cold war was in full swing, with nuclear fallout shelters spreading across America's backyards.
"Even though the country was relatively safe, you had the Democrat saying, 'Not only will I be tough on security; I'll be tougher than these other guys. And not only are we not safe after eight years of Eisenhower, we're way less safe,' " says Mr. Carafano, a national security expert. "It was a kind of race to the bottom."
Carafano argues that the country is safer than it was pre-9/11 and the threat of transnational terrorism has declined, but that this will actually present a challenge for McCain. "Things aren't so bad, but nobody ever comes to the podium and says, 'We're 70 percent there, and by God if you elect me, I'll get you to 72 percent there,' " Carafano says. "That argument doesn't get you very far."
That challenge is further complicated by the disaffection of some respected Republican stalwarts who believe that the US has not been served well on foreign-policy matters over the past eight years.
"Because of the many mistakes the Bush administration has made by overreaching and going to war for no apparent reason in Iraq, the opinion of the United States around the world has declined, and the US Army is in tatters," says Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-leaning think tank in Washington. "This administration has strayed so far from what I'd call prudent Republican foreign policy that they've caused ... a lot of problems."
While McCain and the Republicans still have the predominant support among military veterans, a growing number of younger Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are shifting toward the Democrats. And many, such as former Marine Corps officer Maura Sullivan, are in Denver this week, determined to help undo the Republicans' lock on national security.
"We've seen over the last five years that we just cannot afford more of the old approach to our national defense," says Captain Sullivan, a member of Veterans for Obama. "I have nothing but respect for John McCain, but he comes from a previous generation. We need a commander in chief with the right combination of judgment, integrity, vision, and leadership for the 21st century."