How the GOP Lost National Security

Republicans abandoned Reagan's optimistic pragmatism for their own brand of idealism.

In the wake of the 2012 election, it is clear that there has been a sea change in the perceptions of the American electorate on which party is the better steward of the country’s national-security interests. Traditionally, Republican candidates had always enjoyed a so-called “national-security advantage” (at least in those elections where foreign and defense policies were major issues). Only a short eight years ago, George W. Bush enjoyed a eighteen-point lead over John Kerry when exit polls asked voters to rate who they trusted to wage the "war on terror" more effectively, and of those voters who made national security a voting issue, sixty percent favored the Republican incumbent. No longer.

The November 2012 Rasmussen report now gives Democrats the edge when the question is posed as to which party is better equipped to deal with national security. Veterans and active duty military are more likely to split their votes rather than acting as a reliably Republican voting bloc, as occurred in other recent past elections. Exit polling after the 2012 campaign concluded suggested that President Barack Obama and his challenger, Governor Mitt Romney, polled “equally on national security” and that voters “trusted the president 11 points more on the broader category of international affairs.” Peter Beinart concluded that, in winning reelection, Obama has "broken the GOP’s decades-old advantage on foreign affairs."

What is clear, however, is that this shift has not been generated by any particular new vision of foreign affairs being proffered by the Democrats. Most commentators have noted the high degree in continuity in national-security affairs between the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Many of the signature achievements of the current administration, such as "resetting" relations with Russia, could have come verbatim from the foreign-policy playbook utilized by the national-security team of Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft and President George H.W. Bush. Notwithstanding the use of buzzwords like "smart power," Democrats have filled the long-standing national-security gap with Republicans not by offering an alternative vision for international affairs, but by demonstrating to voters greater competence in executing foreign policy—and successfully framing Republicans as reckless and irresponsible when it comes to national security.

The Democrats have succeeded in doing what Kurt Campbell and Michael O'Hanlon advised in these pages in the days immediately following the 2004 elections, when they counseled: "The Democratic Party must reestablish its national-security bona fides among key constituencies if it hopes to win back the White House or Congress." This advice, however, is now apropos for the other side of the aisle. No Republican candidate can rely on an automatic pro-Republican "national-security constituency" in future elections.

It behooves Republicans to consider how and why the national-security gap first opened up, in the 1970s. After all, containment of the Soviet Union had been a bipartisan strategy. But what happened, particularly after the defeat of George McGovern in 1972, was the rise in the influence of idealistic and even utopian strains of thought within the Democratic Party: proponents of arms control for the sake of arms control or for holding regimes around the world to the West’s high standards of human rights and democratic norms, regardless of context.

The trust gap emerged when it became clear that the USSR was perfectly willing to cheat on arms control accords and when a series of authoritarian but pro-American governments lost U.S. support for their transgressions and were replaced by anti-American, totalitarian successors. The idealism espoused by Democratic Party statesmen seemed to confirm the worst fears of Hans Morgenthau, who had warned several decades before about excessive moralism clouding sound foreign-policy judgment. Republicans, in contrast, espoused a morality of results, not of intentions.

Despite being characterized by his opponents as a warmonger, Ronald Reagan twice won election to the presidency for precisely opposite reasons: in the end, he was quite restrained in the actual use and deployment of U.S. military power. He advocated a pragmatic approach to foreign affairs in which the best way to promote American values was to create conditions for their gradual spread and adoption. In evaluating Reagan's classic speeches—delivered his visit to China in 1984 and during King Fahd of Saudi Arabia's visit to Washington in 1985, I noted that Reagan

believed that, over time—and as long as no other power sought to use force to control a country's freedom to choose—a nondemocratic, noncapitalist country would discover for itself the virtues of a free-market, liberal-democratic system. He did not believe it wise or prudent for the United States to force the pace of history. Nor did he rule out nondemocracies as fit partners for the United States to achieve its global objectives.

It is the departure from Reagan's "optimistic pragmatism" in favor of a more idealistic "forcing the spring" approach—particularly using U.S. military power in an attempt to reshape hostile societies in America's image—which led to some of the miscalculations of the George W. Bush administration that so eroded the trust of the American electorate in the GOP's stewardship of U.S. foreign policy. The continued unwillingness of some within the Republican establishment to acknowledge these failures ended up being a weight around the necks of the John McCain campaign in 2008 and the Romney/Ryan ticket in 2012. The belief, whether justified or not, that a Romney presidency would be more likely to plunge the U.S. into armed conflicts in the Middle East and Asia—as opposed to a more pragmatic Obama who would try to find "deals" to keep us out of war—was an important subtext in the election campaign.

The term "banker" has now become an epithet, but in the pre-financial crash days, a banker was seen as a respectable pillar of the community rather than as a criminal. In this same vein, Republicans, because of their experiential base in the business community, were considered to be politicians more inclined to carefully weigh costs and benefits, less likely to gamble on hunches or aspirations—or let ideology cloud their assessment of the facts on the ground.

Romney decided not to embrace this model of the businessman-dealmaker as statesman. It raises the question whether this is a political persona that any future standard bearer in 2016 would be willing to adopt. But it seems clear that Americans want to know that a president has the skills of barter and exchange, as well as the ruthlessness to employ deadly force, in defending and advancing U.S. interests and values on the world stage.

Any Republican nominee for president in 2016, therefore, has an uphill battle in trying to convince the electorate that the GOP can and should be trusted with America's national security. And it will require the Republican Party to have an honest and frank discussion of its recent past. Only then can the GOP advance a vision of conservative internationalism grounded in realism, one that might again capture the hearts—and votes—of a majority of Americans.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.

Image: Flickr/Charlie Phillips.