When was the last time you heard someone describe Democrats as "the party of national defense?"
That view hasn't held sway since Harry Truman's day. Thanks in part to his muscular demonstration of American values during the Berlin Airlift, Truman staged one of history's greatest re-election triumphs and regained control of both chambers of Congress. With Republican Senator Dick Lugar's loss in Tuesday's Indiana primary, Democrats may be about to party like it's 1948.
Here's why: the Republican Party's ability to keep America safe has vanished like the Dewey Administration. Yes, what was a credibility gap on national security became a gaping fault line overnight. Much has been made of Obama's successes with the drone program, Osama bin Laden, and other efforts. If Democrats can contrast that with their opponents' abandonment of sensible values, we will see a seismic shift in our electoral landscape.
Dick Lugar mattered. He has long had a hand on the wheel of America's ship of state. He's been the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 1985, but he's no Senate dinosaur fossil, serving to this day as perhaps the most visible face of reasonable Republican foreign policy. He appears on national television more than once a week, was rated one of Time magazine's 10 Best Senators in 2006, and more or less functions as a shadow Secretary of State, according to veteran Capitol Hill watchers.
Lugar-style diplomacy looks like this: strategic use of military force, constant international engagement, careful alliance-building, and targeted foreign aid. Since the outbreak of World War II, these are the hallmarks of every U.S. foreign policy success, from the Marshall Plan to the Berlin Airlift to the Libyan revolution. Our biggest failures, like Vietnam and Iraq, bore none of these features.
Nowhere has Lugar better proven the effectiveness of his mainstream values than on the problem of unsecured nuclear weapons. As the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990's, leaving thousands of scientists and guards suddenly unemployed and the military chain of command in shambles, the opportunity for terrorist mischief seemed agonizingly ripe. Lugar led the Republican side of a comprehensive, detailed effort to help Russia secure its thousands of "loose nukes."
This threat reduction initiative proved a spectacular success. Working together, Americans and ex-Soviets decommissioned over 7,600 warheads, destroyed 498 missile silos, and removed all weaponized material from three former republics. In 2007, Lugar updated these efforts in a joint project with then-Senator Barack Obama. Both men held the common sense belief that what happens on the other side of the world affects our freedom in Indiana ... and in swing states like Florida and Colorado.
It was for precisely that belief that Lugar's opponent, Richard Mourdock, savaged the Senator -- with a major assist from national Republicans.
Mourdock mocked Lugar for daring to work with Obama on loose nukes, an idea so popular that the first President Bush authorized it, a mixed Congress passed it unanimously and the second President Bush renewed it. Mourdock attacked Lugar for putting security and stability ahead of, in Mourdock's own words, "confrontation [with Democrats]."
In doing so, he joins the failed John McCain wing of the GOP, whose isolationist and knee-jerk world view has been on the wrong side of American history and public opinion for over 100 years. Like McCain, Mourdock has no coherent vision for America's role in the world. He is, as a Republican Hill staffer put it to me this week, a "partisan clown."
What's next? Smart Democrats up and down the ballot will take this opportunity to go on the offensive. There is zero distinction between the Tea Party and the Republican Party; the inmates are running the asylum. Just as Democrats have successfully isolated loony regimes like Iran and North Korea, they now need to kick their opponents out of the mainstream circle of trust.
They have a rogue's gallery of crazed, high-profile Republicans to which to tie any candidate. Mitt Romney is perhaps even more erratic than McCain. All but ten House Republicans voted for Rep. Paul Ryan's budget, which handcuffs the Lugar-Obama program and devastates support for veterans. None of these moves reflect shared American values.
Even rural Democrats who can't run on Obama's accomplishments can now focus solely on Republican moral decay.
This values-based national security narrative also flows naturally to or from this election's core contrast on jobs. Democrats believe that everyone deserves a chance at the American Dream -- no exceptions. That's why we promote the Peace Corps and Pell Grants, peacekeeping and progressive taxation. If Republicans no longer invest in human beings around the world (which incidentally builds markets for our products), how can we trust them to show the opposite value at home?
Ten years from now, we may look back at a small GOP primary as the tipping point for Democrats' return to dominance on national defense. The last Republican voice for diplomacy, international development and the strategic use of force has fallen silent. If you feel that's what keeps us safe and fear a world without American leadership, your only choice is to vote Democrat. That may remain true for a generation.