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Zeroing In on the National Security Challenge

There's been a link up top of the site for a few days about Democracy Corps' new survey and analysis on how Democrats ought to deal with national security issues in this election cycle.

There's a lot of valuable stuff in this analysis, but I'd like to zero in on a couple of specific points involving perceptions of a very important voting category, defined by DCorps as follows:

There is a bloc of 12 percent of the likely electorate, “Democratic Wanna-Ds,” who say they would vote for a Democrat in a generic presidential ballot, but then do not pick either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama in the named ballot match-ups. Most of these Wanna-Ds, 57 percent, are moderate-conservative Democrats, while 29 percent are self-described independents; a fall-off in support from the moderate-conservative Democrats is a major reason both Clinton and Obama are now trailing.

In other words, these are the folk who are the most likely targets for a Democratic general election campaign.

Two things about "Democratic Wanna-Ds" jump right off the page in DCorps' polling on national security issues.

First of all, by a 49-46 plurality, "Democratic Wanna-Ds" think John McCain would "mostly bring a different approach than President Bush" to national security and foreign policy issues. This is highly similar to the perception of Republicans, and sharply divergent with that of most Democrats. Thus, one obvious way to help convert the "Wanna-Ds" to the Democratic presidential candidate is to constantly highlight McCain's congruence with Bush security policies, instead of letting him use occasional differences like Guantanamo or (some) torture practices to look like a GOP "maverick."

Second of all, by a startling 33 percentage points, the "Wanna-Ds" say they worry more that Clinton or Obama will be too reluctant to use military force abroad, than McCain being too willing to use military force abroad. Given the wording here, the question is about as clear an indicator of which party's candidates control the "center" on national security as you are going to find. And the Wanna-Ds are way off the Donkey Reservation here.

These numbers reinforce a simple but critical point about the emerging battle-lines of the general election, in which virtually every issue other than national security will almost certainly help produce a Democratic win: the Democratic nominee must work overtime to expose the extremism and recklessness--in other words, the Bush-like qualities--of John McCain's national security record and platform, while removing every reasonable doubt that he or she is willing to use military force to protect national interests where necessary and appropriate. This latter objective does not mean "moving to the right" or agreeing with McCain on specifics like Iraq or Iran, but it does mean making it clear that differences on those specifics and others are based on a strong and clear-eyed Democratic commitment to national security.

It would be a tragedy if Democrats succumbed this year to the ancient temptation of changing the subject from national security to economic or other domestic issues, treating the former as "Republican territory" that will be conceded as simply less politically potent. There's a clear case to be made that Democrats are actually superior in managing the country's international challenges, but we're going to have to actually make it.