Political campaigns are such peculiar, almost farcical, spectacles that one wonders how democracy survives them. Chief among the events that test the gag reflex is the succession of debates that gives viewers opportunities to see all the candidates at once. It reminds one of nothing so much as a high school dance, at which everybody is attempting to appear both attractive and nonchalant, usually with little success. To grown-ups, they all look either gangling and inept, or unctuous and far too eager to please.
There has been quite a bit written about the candidates’ performances during last week’s debate. (Make no mistake about it: national politicians are principally performers and entertainers first…and strategic thinkers second, if at all. And it wasn’t really a “debate,” was it?) Most observers found the event predictable and unenlightening, except for Obama’s pusillanimous response to Brian Williams’s question about security.
When asked how he would respond to a terrorist attack on American cities, Obama responded with the usual platitudes but did not say specifically that he would retaliate against the terrorists. The other major candidates ganged up and were more forceful, and Obama sought later to play catch-up, but the damage was done: he gave the impression that he doesn’t have a particularly good handle on defense.
Since she entered the Senate, Hillary Clinton has worked hard to appear strong on defense. Indeed, most of the Democrats are actively trying to convince voters that they may be against American involvement in Iraq but are strong on national security. Only Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich don’t seem to care about this, but they appear to serve the maintenance of democracy only to the extent that they prove that just about anyone can run for national office.
The Democrats’ concern about defense mirrors the public’s insistence that it can distinguish between the mission, which they don’t like, and the selfless troops, whom they all adore. But, while Clinton has at least a modicum of experience, one gets the impression that Obama doesn’t have much to say about the national security of the Republic, at least partially because he hasn’t thought very much about it. Unless he is the exception that proves the rule, Obama most likely decided to enter the race primarily because he was encouraged to do so by others, people who found him refreshingly forthright and able to capture the imagination of voters, not because he has attractive solutions to our nation’s problems.
Not surprisingly, most polls show that national defense is among the most important issues to Americans who vote. That’s why politicians on both sides of the aisle can criticize the Bush administration with great confidence, knowing that most people agree on one thing: Bush has made a mess of it all. But telling Americans that George Bush doesn’t know what he’s doing is not the same as convincing voters that you do.
Furthermore, the Democrats’ nominee will still have to battle the Republican, who will have a perceived advantage on matters of defense, the Iraq mess notwithstanding. On the subject of national security, it won’t matter much that McCain seems too old, Romney seems too boring, and Giuliani seems to be too laden with personal baggage. To those who are focused on national security issues, ironically it’s the Democrat who will have the explaining to do.
After last week’s debate, Obama (who is probably surprised himself by his rapid rise to stardom) now recognizes that, as John Edwards remarked, “Highfalutin’ language is not enough.” His candidacy will not survive unless he develops a coherent view on things that are important to voters, especially national security.
It won’t be enough to say that Bush’s military policies are dysfunctional, because almost everyone else, including the Republicans, will say it, too.
Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.