National Security and the Midterm Elections What role will the national security debate play in upcoming elections? Michael O'Hanlon, co-author of Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security, discusses the topic with Liane Hansen.
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National Security and the Midterm Elections

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National Security and the Midterm Elections

National Security and the Midterm Elections

National Security and the Midterm Elections

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What role will the national security debate play in upcoming elections? Michael O'Hanlon, co-author of Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security, discusses the topic with Liane Hansen.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen. Two years ago, as the 2004 presidential election campaign came down to the wire, the war in Iraq was still a winning issue for Republicans. This year the war is widely seen as a liability for the GOP, possibly a substantial enough liability to threaten Republican control of Congress. Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon and Kurt Campbell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies write about the influence of national security on domestic politics in their new book, Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security. Michael O'Hanlon is a frequent visitor to NPR's studio and he joins us now. Welcome back, Michael.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Brookings Institution): Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: The Republicans are in an unaccustomed position on national security and military issues, aren't they?

Mr. O'HANLON: They are, and they deserve to be in one sense because they haven't done very well on Iraq. But our book is not about playing that issue too far. There's a lot of political spin on both sides, and our message is really more towards Democrats, to say, listen, Democrats got to get in this game, because the country needs them to, and for their own political good they're going to have to. This is going to be one of the top two issues - national security probably (unintelligible) one of the top two, three issues for the rest of our lives.

HANSEN: Elaborate a little bit on why the Democrats have had so much difficulty getting support on military matters.

Mr. O'HANLON: Well, it's been very hard within the military, where most polls now show about a five to one ratio Republican over Democrat among officers in particular. I think part of it goes back to Vietnam, no doubt. That's where the gap between the two parties emerged across the country as a whole on national security. And that's certainly a war that Democrats deserved, or at least received more criticism for than Republicans. Democrats I think lost a lot of their luster in the eyes of military personnel in that period of time. And surprisingly, even Al Gore and John Kerry couldn't turn it around. Bill Clinton did a better job as a draft dodger than these two Vietnam vets were able to do, in part because I would submit they were listening to their strategists. The strategists were wrong.

HANSEN: Touch a little bit though on Ronald Reagan's legacy. I mean he was practically lionized by the military. Is that a governing factor in how the military sees politics?

Mr. O'HANLON: There's no doubt. Reagan is a very popular figure among the military, and frankly, when you look at the basic facts, it's hard to disagree, even if you're a Democrat, as I am. You know, you can disagree about how much credit to give Reagan for different things that happened, but he built up the armed forces, he gave people a lot more pride in their military, both within and outside the armed forces. We didn't fight a lot, and military people of course are smart enough to know that you only want to fight when you really have to. They don't really enjoy being at war. And so you put all that together and it paints a pretty nice picture in people's memories of what Reagan did for the armed forces.

HANSEN: The Democrats are running very strong in the polls right now. Is this in part because of a weakness in - on the part of the Bush administration and the Republicans, or is this due to anything the Democrats have done?

Mr. O'HANLON: It's almost entirely the former. And in fact it's a conscious decision of Democratic strategists. If you talk to them, they will say we don't really want to make this our moment to have a big positive agenda because mid-term elections are referendums on the incumbent. And that's fair enough at one level. We're in a democracy where there should be accountability about how well you run the country, but what I'm concerned about is that coming up with new visions, new ideas, which Democrats will need to do soon enough, is hard. You know, it's a difficult enterprise. And to sort of wait until we've gotten through the mid-term election cycle to begin that process I think is dangerous business.

HANSEN: Mike I want to finish up with a rather broad question because we've talked at length and there's been a great deal of focus on terrorism and the war in Iraq lately. But are these immediate and these high profile issues that obscure such other global concerns, like energy production and climate change?

Mr. O'HANLON: Well, this is a very good point. Kurt and I basically argue that there is a broader agenda for foreign policy and even for national security. But you're only going to be given the trust of the American people to pursue it if you first convince the American voter you can protect them the old fashioned way, if you have strong, clear and convincing views on how to employ the armed forces. It's fine to be against the Iraq War, but you've got to show a certain amount of consistency and you've got to make Americans believe that you are thinking about this day in and day out as a way to protect the country and not as a political tool to use against the opposition.

So that's where I think that we really need to see a change in the tenor on both sides, because Karl Rove does this just as much as Democrats, but in a different way. He's just more successful. But he's prepared to politicize issues. Democrats are more likely to try to run away from them. It's not good to do either one.

HANSEN: Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He and Kurt Campbell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies are co-authors of the book Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security. Mike, thanks for coming in.

Mr. O'HANLON: Thank you.

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