Top 10 Ways Candidates Can WIN the National Security Debate
Last week, we told you the Top 10 mistakes that candidates make on national security.
It went viral and became the top blog post in Truman Doctrine. You might have been left wondering, “But, Mike, how do I do national security right?”
And thus, we present to you the Top 10 Ways candidates can WIN the national security debate:
10. Have a veterans team.
Building a veterans advisory council or vets for [candidate x] is the easiest way to show the public that you care and you get it. Then, make it public! Check out former DNC Chair and US Senate candidate Tim Kaine’s website for a great example of doing it right. He’s got a policy platform, endorsers, and ways to engage – and the campaign really does seek advice from those folks.
And remember the spouses!
When a service member goes to war, so does his or her family. Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden have been tremendously successful by engaging military spouses through Joining Forces. So turn your Vets committee into a Veterans and Military Families committee.
9. It’s Emotional!
Security issues trigger fear. When that happens, the emotional centers of the brain take over and logic is less important. So voters turn to leader who they can emotionally connect with, not the person with tons of good facts. Understanding fight-or-flight responses is key to effective national security leadership. So if the public is angry, there’s probably a good reason you can be a bit upset too. If the public is worried, demonstrate similar concern.
8. Understand the security infrastructure.
It’s hard to interpret what’s going on or push for the right solution if you don’t know who’s in charge of what. Why are the Marines different from the Army? What’s the difference between the Department of the Navy and Pacific Command? And what the heck do the Joint Chiefs of Staff actually do? When are civilian leaders in charge instead of the military? Chances are most candidates couldn’t tell you. But we can – download the Truman Security Briefing Book to find out.
7. Realize war is not a final action.
One of the easiest ways to make the wrong decision is to think of the use of force as a final solution. It can be very tempting to think of bombing a nation into oblivion as a singular action and then the problem goes away. Not true. After you attack someone, you have a host of decisions to make about what happens next. Our military will probably always win the battle, but we can easily lose in the aftermath. So if you’re in Congress, deciding on a course of action, you need to play chess, not checkers.
6. Keep terminology straight and straightforward.
Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization spanning many countries dedicated to attacking Americans everywhere in the world. The Taliban is an insurgency within Afghanistan fighting Americans there in order to overthrow an Afghan government we support. They’re not the same but can be easily conflated. When dealing with security issues, the public will gravitate toward the person who can clearly explain what’s going on in a simple and effective manner. And that starts with knowing basic definitions. (P.S. We can help with this at the Truman Project!)
5. Demonstrate understanding of the other side’s main point.
We’re accustomed to partisan debate, but oftentimes security isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. Swing voters like a Democrat who understands that bad people really exist, want to harm America, and should be punished for their actions. Likewise, they like a Republican who considers options that don’t include bullets and cares about addressing root causes of violence and extremism.
4. Recognize when law and order matters more than ideology.
The immigration debate is a great example here. Voters have heard the “ship ‘em back to Mexico” line vs. the “everyone should be an American” argument over and over. Sometimes, keeping the country safe is just about basic common sense and people want laws that are followed and order in society. So its no surprise that an immigration plan that starts with this concept, asks people to follow rules, can bring people out of the shadows so we know who they are, and offers a path to citizenship – that combo routinely tests around 80% positive.
3. Understand symbolism.
Two iconic pictures say it all:
1) Obama making the tough call to send in the Navy Seals to kill Bin Laden.
2) Bush’s arrogant Mission Accomplished stunt.
Patriotism is intellectual (we love you Constitution!) and symbolic (let me wear that flag pin!) and you’ll need to understand both to convince the public that you’re trusted to keep them safe.
2. Have a plan of action.
The easiest way to lose a security debate is to become the party of “no.” For example, if a Republican candidate wants to bomb another nation for no reason other than sheer reactionary politics, and the Democrat just talks about how dumb that is, then the Democrat is in trouble. Iran is a great case. Everyone in the military knows that bombing Iran could produce major backlash with little likelihood of success, but what are you gonna do to stop Iran’s government? The ability to explain the alternative of sanctions so tough they amount to economic war and are bringing Iran to the negotiating table – well that’s an important ability to have.
1. Always reinforce your personal worldview.
Voters don’t have the same type of reference point for national security as they do for topics like education, health care, and jobs. Everyone has been to school, the doctor and work (we hope!). But few have fought in war or been a diplomat. As a result, the voter isn’t thinking, “Does this politician’s logic agree with my experience?” Instead, the voter is thinking, “Who is this person and what does s/he stand for?” Which means you’ve got to always put the “why” before the “what.”
If you believe the US military must be strong to fight threats, and you understand that not all threats can be solved with a military alone, then say that before you say anything else. Even better if you believe that because you’ve learned from your brother, the Army Major. If you think foreign aid is crucial to preventing terrorism and to opening up markets, explain that before you get into the dollars and cents debate. Even better if you believe that because you’re a small business owner who has two kids whose safety you care about. Trust starts with who YOU are.
Mike Moschella is Truman’s Political Director.