POLITICS
07/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Democrats' National Security Hangover

Lately, Democrats have been having a party on national security. An Admiral who wants more troops in Afghanistan, the Bush administration's diplomatic overtures to Iran, and the Iraqi government's preference for a U.S. withdrawal by 2010 have all conspired to undercut John McCain's assertion that Barack Obama is naive when it comes to the world stage.

Given that liberals have been roasted over the national security pit in past presidential cycles, their enthusiasm over this turn of events and their praise for Obama's confidence on the issue is easy to understand. As the Washington Post's Dan Balz wrote on Monday: "In earlier years, Democratic candidates couldn't wait to move off of foreign policy and onto domestic issues, aware that their party more or less owned the domestic debate, while Republicans generally held the high ground on national security."

But a similar choice may boil up once again for Democrats after Obama returns from his trip abroad. Once home, should the presumptive nominee press his increasingly strong hand on national security matters, and grant McCain his preference for talking about Iraq as much as possible? Or, in a particularly bad economic year, should Obama's campaign put economic issues ahead of an endless debate about the future (and recent past) of Iraq? In resolving the question, a headache or two may even ensue -- call it the Democrats' national security hangover after a few high-flying weeks.

As it stands now, the debate over messaging priorities is far from settled among the various communities of left-leaning pollsters, think-tank intellectuals and past campaign operatives who help make up the party's conventional wisdom.

"Honestly, step back a half step," pollster Mark Mellman said regarding the recent press frenzy over Obama's trip abroad. "This is vastly more of an economic election. It's in Obama's interest to keep it that way. ... He shouldn't want the whole country [to be thinking] about whether his approach to foreign affairs is the best or not, even though it is." As you might expect from a pollster, there's some public opinion data that backs up Mellman's position. In June, Gallup found that health care, the economy, energy and tax prices were all more important to voters than terrorism or the Iraq war. On each of those issues, Obama held a healthy advantage over McCain (while also tying on Iraq).

But such arguments have yet to persuade Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress who has also advised Obama on Iraq. "The pollsters have been repeatedly wrong" to advise against going all out on national security matters, Katulis told the Huffington Post, "because they read their numbers statically about 'where things are right now.' There's an amazing lack of creativity." Katulis also said the pollsters' reliance on looking back at old races with 20-20 hindsight can distract them to the point where they ignore the potential "to really shift the terms of the debate on national security."

"It demonstrates the problem with the campaign consultants who have what I call 'national security deficit disorder,'" Katulis said. "The only way you [change] that is by going on the offensive. ... It's been at the heart of the advice I've given to this campaign. You need to show up with a strong argument. And Obama's doing this quite well on the trip so far." Katulis also noted that, given the effects of globalization, economic and foreign affairs issues are being blurred together in any case, and that candidates need "an integrated approach" to address both.

That model comes closest to what longtime campaign consultant Bob Shrum believes Obama should recognize. "The economic issues are very important, and they will be central to the campaign," Shrum said. "But it's always been the case that Obama had to pass the threshold of national security." Shrum, who was John Kerry's campaign manager in 2004, has often been criticized for his reported influence in pushing Democrats to follow President Bush on Iraq. This time, though, he concedes that Obama will need to stake out his own ground. "As long as people believe that Obama passes that threshold, he's gonna win the election," Shrum said.

Still, the national security turf is not completely free of dangers for the Illinois Democrat. The McCain campaign is already jumping on Obama's admission that he did not fully "anticipate" the benefits of the surge strategy in Iraq. As The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder has noted, both candidates have appeared prescient about Iraq at different points in time. The job ahead of each candidate now is to convince the public that his own moment of rightness was the more critical one. And for Obama in particular, making that case carries the risk of lending less attention to persuasive arguments he can make on the economic front. Even as fine lines go, that's a tough one. Walking it well will certainly require some sober thought once the heady days of Obama's foreign trip are over.