There once was an era when Republicans owned the national security “brand,” an era when Democrats were so cowed, so fearful of being tagged as naifs, that they shrank from even talking about it.But oh, how those roles have been reversed.
On the final night of the Democratic convention, speakers virtually wrapped themselves in the American flag, war vets were paraded on stage, potential Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that we should “ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago” – and, most notably, President Obama, in an otherwise pedestrian acceptance speech (for him, anyway), ridiculed Mitt Romney’s non-existent commander-in-chief credentials.The strongest passages in Obama’s speech dealt with foreign policy; not too long ago that would have been unthinkable for a Democratic president or nominee. But the polls consistently show that Obama is deemed far more trustworthy than Romney in the handling of our affairs abroad – last month, the Fox News poll had Obama on top by 13 points; other ’12 surveys have said the gap is 20 points – and Obama strategists believe that even in a race dominated by domestic issues, the commander-in-chief factor will boost the president on election day.Hence the unusually heavy emphasis last night on security themes – in contrast to the Republicans, whose nominee, in his own acceptance speech last week, never once even uttered the word “troops,” or offered a shout out to the Americans serving in “Afghanistan.” (He never said that word, either. You can look it up.) All told, Romney devoted roughly eight sentences to foreign policy, which is probably par for the course for a guy whose international experience begins and ends with his stint as young religious missionary knocking on doors in France.Actually, it’s a good thing that Obama’s foreign policy passages were so strong, because the rest of his speech was underwhelming. Clearly, he and his speechwriters decided that it would be inappropriate this time to soar on the wings of eloquence; after all, the folks watching at home have heard the pretty words before. Instead, this was a sober address with bummer passages: “I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy…The truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve (economic) challenges that have built up for decades.”But the big problem with the speech was not its style, but its content. His primary job last night was to tell viewers what he would do differently in his second term to mend the economy and create jobs – and how he plans to achieve those goals. He didn’t do any of that. Or if he did, it was buried somewhere in the laundry list of policy aspirations, the kind of list best suited for a State of the Union address.In his defense, of course, it would have been a waste of his time to promise too much; after all, how can he possibly achieve his economic goals when the obstructionist Republicans will stay in character and foil him at every turn? In his first term, they said that their top priority was to deny him a second term. And if he wins a second term, their top priority after Inauguration Day will be to treat him as a lame duck.Nevertheless, his economic sales job was probably not strong enough to close the deal. Sometimes it even raised more questions than it answered. At one point, he said that the economic recovery would require “the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one.” Wow, was he endorsing robust government solutions, a la the New Deal? Well, no, not exactly. His next sentence: “And by the way, those of us who carry on (FDR’s) party legacy should remember that not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington.”No wonder he seemed most comfortable leveraging his big advantage in the foreign policy realm. Incumbents typically feel that way; Obama would feel even moreso in a second term, because overseas he’s generally free from the domestic constraints imposed by knee-jerk Republican naysaying.And so, in his speech, he said: “In a world of new threats and new challenges, you can choose leadership that has been tested and proven. Four years ago, I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did. I promised to refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11. We have. We’ve blunted the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, and in 2014, our longest war will be over. A new tower rises above the New York skyline, al Qaeda is on the path to defeat, and Osama bin Laden is dead.”Then he invoked the troops: “Tonight, we pay tribute to the Americans who still serve in harm’s way. We are forever in debt to a generation whose sacrifice has made this country safer and more respected. We will never forget you. And so long as I’m Commander-in-Chief, we will sustain the strongest military the world has ever known. When you take off the uniform, we will serve you as well as you’ve served us – because no one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job, or a roof over their head, or the care that they need when they come home.”That paragraph was an implied rebuke to Romney’s failure to mention the troops. No need to be explicit, because John Kerry had already taken care of that: “No nominee for president should ever fail in the midst of war to pay tribute to our troops overseas.”Obama soon moved to mockery: “So now we face a choice. My opponent and his running mate are (dramatic pause) 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 – and not al Qaeda – 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. My opponent said it was ‘tragic’ to end the war in Iraq, and he won’t tell us how he’ll end the war in Afghanistan. I have, and I will. And while my opponent would spend more money on military hardware that our Joint Chiefs don’t even want, I’ll use the money we’re no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work – rebuilding roads and bridges; schools and runways. After two wars that have cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, it’s time to do some nation-building right here at home.”Obama was referring, of course, to Romney’s various moments of hilarity on the world stage – his remark about Russia, and his laughingstock foreign tour this summer, when he insulted the British in London and the Palestinians in the Middle East. (And by the way, remember the midweek flap about the Democratic platform? When the party apparatchiks removed the language which had declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel – and then put the language back under orders from Obama? This stupid episode has naturally rekindled the Republican delusion that the GOP can make significant inroads in the Jewish electorate. But if anyone remembers this platform flap in November, it will be the Jewish voters who already support the GOP.)Anyway, Obama is smart to put some campaign emphasis on national security; it helps sharpen the stark choice between him and Romney, and it provides ballast to his own image. And in the October debates, if Romney starts rattling the saber on Iran (as he appeared to do last week, in his three sentences on Iran), Obama can simply say what he said at a press conference last March, while discussing Romney’s hawkish rhetoric on Iran: “These folks have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk…If some of these folks think it’s time to launch a war, they should say so. And they should explain to the American people exactly what why they would do that and what the consequences would be. Everything else is just talk.”The economy will dog Obama from now until election day, and he did little last night to lighten his load. But national security is a topic he will welcome.——-You know how the Republicans are suddenly blowing kisses to Bill Clinton, and talking about how much they loved his tenure as president? Wait, isn’t this the same guy they impeached? Their attempted rewrite of history must have George Orwell spinning in his grave. That’s my Friday newspaper column.——-I was on WHYY’s “Radio Times” for an hour this morning, along with Princeton professor and CNN contributor Julian Zelizer, to deconstruct the Democratic convention. It’s archived for easy listening, here.