In the spring of 1980, President Jimmy Carter ordered a group of Delta Force soldiers to rescue 53 hostages who were detained in Iran for about five months. The mission, which was dubbed Desert One, went awry. One of the helicopters caught fire and eight members of the rescue team were killed. The botched rescue mission created an aura of incompetence that hovered over the Carter administration. Even worse, the failure reinforced the notion that Democrats could not be fully trusted on matters of national security.
Thus, for more than 30 years, the majority of the American public has trusted Republican presidents instinctively to keep the nation safe. Because of his many foreign policy successes, especially in dealing with Al-Qaeda, however, President Obama has, thus far, turned this major liability into an asset as he is getting ready to embark on his reelection campaign.
The public did not always mistrust Democrats on national security issues. After all, President Franklin Roosevelt played an important role in helping the allies win World War II. But during the Vietnam War, the seeds of distrust were planted in the minds of the public, particularly when the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern decided to run as an anti-war candidate.
The failed rescue mission and the collapse of the Soviet Union during the presidency of Ronald Reagan have cemented the perception that Republicans should be more trusted to keep the nation secure. In fact, the gap between the two parties on national security issues has been so wide that Democratic presidential candidates tend to run on economic policy platforms while ceding the national security ground to Republicans. This strategy is a tacit acknowledgement by Democrats that they could not compete with Republicans on issues of national security. Thus, Democratic presidential candidates have generally been more optimistic about their chances of being elected when the voters are concerned about the state of the economy.
This different emphasis has created separate identities for the two parties. Therefore, the Democratic Party has been dubbed the “Mommy Party” because it focuses on “kitchen table issues” whereas the Republican Party has been called the “Daddy Party” since Republicans are more hawkish on national security issues.
The 1992 presidential campaign was a test case example of this dichotomy. After his great success in the first Gulf War, George H.W. Bush appeared to be invincible, with his approval rating at 88%. The economy, however, became the central issue during the election. After 12 years of being out of power the Democrats had their first major opening to retake the White House. Bill Clinton promised that he would focus on the economy “like a laser beam.” His campaign slogan — It’s the Economy, Stupid — captured not only the mood of the public but the terrain on which the election would be fought.
While the 1992 presidential election provided Democrats with a great opportunity to recapture the White House because the economy was the focal point, the 2004 presidential election, on the other hand, played into the strength of Republicans. The election took place at a time when the public started to turn against the war in Iraq because the George W. Bush administration failed to provide any evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed any weapons of mass destruction. Even worse, the war was going badly; there were more than 800 soldiers killed in 2004. Thus, the country was spending both blood and treasure in a country that was unconnected in any meaningful way to the 9/11 attack in which more than 3,000 Americans were killed. Moreover, Osama bin Laden was still at large.
A strong case could have been made that the Iraq War was a major blunder in that it shifted attention away from Afghanistan, which is the country where the attack was hatched. Despite the Iraq blunder and the fact that Bin Laden was not only alive but was making propagandist videos on a regular basis, the Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry, was still unable to capitalize on those ostensible failures because most of the public continued to believe that the Republican president would do a much better job than his Democratic opponent at conducting the war against Al-Qaeda.
The respective reputation of the two parties in regards to national security has been so well established that even a decorated war hero like Kerry could not escape the label of Democrats being soft on national security issues. Thus Bush was successful in questioning Kerry’s capacity to keep the nation safe. Vice president Cheney went even further when he declared that if Kerry were to win, the nation would be attacked again.
The economic collapse played an important role in helping Barrack Obama win the 2008 election. But the foreign policy challenges that the president has had to deal with during his first term have been as great as those of the economy.
The president has implemented a muscular foreign policy that has proven to be quite effective. He oversaw a successful pull-out of all U.S. troops in Iraq. He recently signed a pact with the Karzai government that would end the Afghanistan War in 2014. Most importantly, he has managed to eliminate most of the leadership of Al-Qaeda, including the mastermind himself, Osama bin Laden.
For the past few decades, Republicans have been successful in portraying Democrats as weak on national defense; thereby they could not be trusted to keep the nation safe. In less than four years, President Obama has managed to do the unthinkable: turning national security into a major asset. His relentless pursuit of Al-Qaeda has paid off and the public has taken notice since he has a 10 point edge over Romney on the question of who would be a “good commander in chief.”
The Democratic Party has been haunted by the failure of Desert One. By ordering a successful raid that killed the perpetrator of 9/11, Obama succeeded where the Bush administration had failed. Hence, this remarkable feat would not only help exorcise the ghost of Desert One but it could put an end to the noxious notion that Democrats are weaklings who could not protect the country against its enemies.