The Democrats' Achilles' Heel

You have to give the Democrats an edge in the next presidential election. But Mark Ribbing of the Progressive Policy Institute sees the Democrats’ post-1968 pacifism as their Achilles’ heel.

Writing in the print edition of the Wall Street Journal:

…just because voters put Democrats in charge of Congress does not mean they are bound to install one in the White House. On matters of security, the public knows that it’s the executive — not the legislature — that matters most. As for the polls, it is still not hard to find misgivings about Democrats’ ability to keep the country safe, especially among swing voters.

A recent survey of political independents by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found preferences for Democrats on one topic after another — except for the “campaign against terrorism,” where Republicans held a nine-point advantage. In a Rasmussen Reports survey released this month, unaffiliated voters favored Republicans on national security by seven points.

We live in dangerous times, and in dangerous times voters have shown a clear, sustained preference for Republican presidential candidates. Ever since 1968, when the Democratic Party tore itself apart over the Vietnam War and voters decided to entrust their security to Richard Nixon, Americans have chosen Republican presidents in times of perceived peril, and Democrats only when no such peril seems to exist.

Of the 10 presidential elections dating back to 1968, Democrats have won the popular vote four times — in 1976, 1992, 1996 and 2000. Three of these elections took place during the pause between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, when the electorate cared little about national-security issues.

The lone exception amply proves the rule: In a 1976 post-Watergate contest that should have been a cinch for Democrats, Jimmy Carter barely staved off Gerald Ford. Four years later — motivated in no small part by the Iranian hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and a general sense that American interests were under increasing threat world-wide — voters eagerly handed the reins back to the GOP, and wouldn’t let a Democrat touch them again until the Communist threat was vanquished.

This Republican advantage is no Cold War relic. It has already had an enormous impact on our post-9/11 presidential politics. In 2004, the first general election following the attacks, President Bush won despite the errors of his first term, this time with popular as well as electoral majorities. Exit polls showed Bush with leads of nearly 20% over Democratic challenger John Kerry on the question of which candidate would do a better job of protecting the nation against terrorist attack. Once again, Americans showed they prefer a Republican in the White House when the nation’s security is at stake.

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