BU Today

In the World

Who Owns National Security?

Julian Zelizer talks about being strong on defense in the November elections

Julian Zelizer, CAS professor of history.

This summer, millionaire cable executive Ned Lamont tapped into voter anger over the Iraq War to edge out three-time incumbent senator and war-backer Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut’s Democratic primary. Immediately after the race was called, commentators and political operatives across the country began reading the tea leaves of the upset victory: would it send fear through candidates who’d been among the 77 senators and 296 representatives to authorize President Bush’s use of force in 2002? Would it boost Democratic chances of retaking Congress? Or would it splinter the Democrats and lead to another Republican romp in November?

Julian Zelizer, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of history, who is writing a book on the politics of national security, isn’t making any predictions. But he does promise that the midterm elections will defy the age-old political axiom that national security issues don’t impact congressional elections, where local or statewide pocketbook concerns are said to predominate.

In his book, scheduled to be published by Yale University Press before the 2008 presidential election, Zelizer investigates the historical roots of current national security politics, a project that began with his curiosity over the politics of the war on terror after September 11, 2001.

Zelizer spoke with Bostonia in August for the fall 2006 edition of the magazine.

Bostonia: How would you summarize the history that led to the current politics of national security?
Zelizer: Looking back to World War II, the Democrats came out of that war politically victorious. They had been the party that defeated fascism and that helped build the national security system. And in the initial years of the Cold War, they were still the party that had a monopoly on this issue. It was Truman who really launched the Cold War and created the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council.
And then, the Democrats kind of lost the issue. And there were two historical periods when this happened. The first was around 1949 to 1952, when Republicans started to attack Democrats as weak on communism. Who lost China became a big issue after China fell to communism, for instance. Republicans realized that national security could be their issue, just like Democrats had social policy. And that led them to be more willing and comfortable using national security as a political issue aggressively on the campaign trail and in electoral politics.

The second time was after Vietnam. Republicans used the fiasco and the emergence of the new left to say, yes, Democrats are just as weak as we thought; they’re even weaker. It also split the Democrats in two. It gave rise to a kind of Democratic constituency that was much less comfortable with international intervention and strong national security measures at home, like spying on citizens. And that division was yet another reason for Democrats to not really want to talk about the issue and for voters not to look to the Democratic Party for leadership on national security challenges.

Speaking of party divisions, would you say there are some cracks in the GOP these days, too?
Absolutely. And that’s one of the things I’m looking at in the book. In some ways, one of the ironies of what happened with 9/11 was that the initial response to the disaster was seen as a sign of Republican strength. The war on terrorism was going to be to Republicans what World War II had been to FDR and the Democrats, kind of a sign that Republicans were in fact the party we should look to in order to keep the country safe. What happened instead is that once we went into Iraq, and as that war has unfolded, it has become a war more similar to Vietnam than to World War II, and it is bringing out and exacerbating tensions that had been muted in the Republican Party. We now see a split party, an openly divided party, a party that doesn’t have the same sense of where it’s going on national security that it did only a few years ago.

How much of national security as a political issue is a battle of rhetoric and slogans such as “cut and run”?
On the one hand, there is a very serious policy debate about how to handle a very real, deadly threat. I think the parties have different ideas about how to do this. And I think when you strip away the rhetoric, when you strip away the ugliness of the political dogfighting, there are some basic questions about how to handle this, and not only between the parties, but within the parties. So I think you have a real fight over what we have to do to stop this terrorist threat, to stop further attacks.

But then the way that’s handled is through the democratic political process, which is rough, tough, and ugly. It becomes a battle over slogans and rhetoric that often doesn’t reflect the real debate that does exist. I think sometimes that’s unfortunate. There is a real division, and it would be healthy to have the debate. But instead, we have caricatures on political campaign ads and Web sites.

How closely joined politically are the issues of national security and fighting terrorism?
One of the successes of the Republicans, certainly between 2001 and 2004, was to conflate the issues, to sell to the voter the idea that the foreign policies of the Bush administration were integral parts of the broader campaign to defend the homeland. I think we saw in the 2002 and 2004 elections that Republicans were very good at keeping the two together in the public mind.

But I think the public is starting to separate these issues, and they’re coming down unfavorably on Bush’s foreign policy in greater numbers. And the burden of the Democrats now is to keep making the arguments that the foreign policies of the Bush administration are not necessarily helping to defend the homeland. Then they’ll also have to make arguments that they have a better plan. And that remains to be seen.

What about the theory that national security is a voting issue only in presidential elections, not in congressional elections?
I’m not sure about that. Polls in congressional campaigns tend to say bread-and-butter issues matter in those races. But I think that in times of national military crisis, which we’re clearly in at this point, the voters, either consciously or subconsciously, measure how a party is doing in handling the war or opposing the war. It’s part of how voters are going to think about whether their representative or senator is an effective leader. While they might be talking about the minimum wage or prescription benefits, what they’re seeing on the news in terms of Iraq and bodies being brought back is going to be part of how they vote.