Democrats and national security

The name of the game is “capture the flag.”

My recent post on secrecy argued that excessive secrecy is bad for national security, and concluded: “Until the Democrats have candidates who can make that argument with a straight face, they’ll keep losing elections.”

Matt Yglesias comments (I’ve reproduced the full text):

Mark Kleiman presents a compelling argument that American classification policy is very bad, and that there are far, far, far too many official secrets. Then he goes all Pundit’s Fallacy on us: “Until the Democrats have candidates who can make that argument with a straight face, they’ll keep losing elections.” Surely he doesn’t really believe that. The 2004 election wasn’t as close as the 2000 election, but it was pretty close: There are a lot of ways a Democrat might win. And there are certainly lots of ways a Democrat might win that have nothing to do with this secrecy business.

I agree with Matt that the Pundit’s Fallacy (“Every expert knows this is right, and so do the people I have lunch with, so it must be a winning issue politically”) is an occupational hazard and a menace to political navigation. But clearly my original remark was too telegraphic.

I didn’t mean to say what obviously isn’t true: that policy about classified information is something Democratic candidates could profitably campaign on. What I did mean to say, and would maintain is true, is that Democrats need candidates who can believably say that anything is a threat to national security.

We need a candidate who doesn’t look as if he’s uncomfortable wearing an American Flag lapel pin, and who obviously thinks, and more importantly feels, that American military power is, on balance, a good thing, and that more of it is, on balance, better for the country and the world. If that person — call him, for the sake of concreteness, Wesley Clark or Eric Shinseki or Sam Nunn — says “And, as someone who has devoted a lifetime to making this country stronger, I tell you that excessive secrecy is a source of weakness,” that statement will be credible.

Opposition to the Vietnam War, support for rapid cuts in military spending after that war, opposition to Reagan’s arms buildup, and opposition to the pattern of U.S. intervention abroad on behalf of right-wing dictators were all core Democratic positions, and as it happened I agreed with all of them.

But put them all together, and they don’t seem to spell out instinctive patriotism of the dumb flag-and-uniform type. And the people whose votes we need and don’t now get mostly want a President who has just that sort of instinctive patriotism.

Be honest: When you see a car with an American-flag bumper sticker, isn’t your first reaction to think that the person driving it is from Red America, culturally if not geographically? Mine, too. As long as the flag remains a partisan symbol, and not of our party, we start every election behind the 8-ball.

Think of this problem from the other side. The Democrats support lots of policies that are demonstrably contrary to the interests of African-Americans, especially policies that maintain cruddy school systems in big cities and that can’t be changed for fear of offending the teachers’ unions. When Republicans such as GWB try to make that issue, black voters laugh at them: “As if you gave a rat’s ass about our kids.”

The fact that the Republicans are obviously and comfortably the party of those who think that black folks have gotten too big for their britches makes them simply not credible when they argue that some particular policy they oppose for other reasons is actually bad for African-Americans. The fact that they often play the race card when it’s not there to be played — as on Social Security — and never, never, ever support something they would otherwise dislike simply because it’s actually good for blacks makes it obvious that their invocations of the needs of African-Americans are insincere and therefore to be ignored. So does the fact that they’re so indifferent to the real issues facing black America that they don’t bother to learn anything about the details, and therefore often wind up sounding disconnected from reality when discussing race.

That’s how Democrats look on national security to lots of people, including the vast bulk of the officer corps. John Kerry, war hero, lost the soldier vote to George W. Bush, chickenhawk and liegeman of the House of Saud, and managed to do so even though the enlisted ranks are disproportionately black and consist entirely of people whose economic interests the Democrats serve and the Republicans trample on.

Until that changes, we’ll win some elections anyway, on domestic issues or because the other side self-destructs. But we’ll lose more than our share.


While I was complaining, the folks at Democracy Arsenal were trying to do something about it. Good for them. (Hat tip: Kevin Drum, who has, as usual, good thoughts of his own to add.)


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: