The Republican Party has long been considered the party of “muscular” patriotism. And while Republican national security expertise has always been overblown, conservatives have successfully portrayed their Democratic opponents as weak on defense in election after election. Following a Democratic National Convention that featured a retired general’s hawkish endorsement of Hillary Clinton, chants of “USA!” in response denunciations of a former secretary of defense by antiwar activists, and an impassioned rebuke of Donald Trump by the father of a Muslim soldier killed in action, some are suggesting the Democrats should now be considered the serious party on national defense. However, there is a lingering question of whether the Democrats have become more serious on defense issues, or if the current Republican nominee has finally destroyed the illusion his party ever was.
The Democratic Party has a long history of defense expertise. Both before and after World War II, Representative Carl Vinson was a long-time booster of national defense—particularly in regard to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, Vinson’s grandnephew, had a well-earned reputation as a defense wonk. Today, the ranking minority members of the congressional Armed Services Committees, Jack Reed in the Senate and Adam Smith in the House, also stand second-to-none in their seriousness on defense issues. And in recent years left-of-center think tanks have produced a number of serious analysts who are likely to serve in a Clinton administration should she best GOP nominee Donald Trump.
But is the Democratic Party really poised to be the “serious party” following November 8? Or are these prognostications based more on the same sort of sound and fury that Republicans used to maintain their questionable status as national security experts? There is not much evidence of the Democrats’ ideas on defense in the party’s 2016 platform. While there is an entire chapter dedicated to various regional issues and particular threats—such as Russia and North Korea—the defense-specific platform is a mere two pages long. While it delves into raising the caps on both defense and domestic spending, the platform mostly focuses on combatting waste, fraud, and abuse; fixing the Veterans’ Administration; providing for military families; and supporting LGBT service members.
All of these are important issues, even if the nod toward fighting waste, fraud, and abuse is somewhat cliché. But it says little about addressing force structure, military innovation, or increasing personnel costs that threaten to cannibalize the sharp end of the defense budget’s spear. A party that purports to be serious on national defense has to consider possible ways to fix problems at the Pentagon that have nearly doubled the military’s price tag on a per active service member basis from the end of the Cold War to today.
A party platform says little about how a party will actually govern. But there is little in Hillary Clinton’s record to indicate what solutions her potential administration might bring to bear on the problems noted above. Having served as secretary of state, and prior to that on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Democratic nominee has a great deal of experience in foreign affairs. But experience is not equivalent to success. Mrs. Clinton is famously hawkish, having encouraged her husband to intervene in the Balkans during his presidency, voted (to her admitted regret) for the Iraq War, and was the driving force behind the intervention that toppled Qaddafi. The latter two interventions have been inarguably disastrous. Then again, Winston Churchill planned the catastrophic Gallipoli campaign before guiding Great Britain through World War II, so the past is not always a prologue.
Outside of using the military for various regime change or humanitarian operations, it is unclear what Mrs. Clinton thinks about various defense issues. The section of her campaign’s website dealing with “military and defense” begins with a quote reaffirming her belief in America’s international alliances and leadership, but the bullet points that purport to outline the particulars of President Clinton’s approach to the military repeat many of the clichés of the party platform. One area of specificity is a bullet point regarding innovation and the leveraging of “net-centric warfare,” which in reality is a throwback to the 1990s and the “revolution in military affairs” information technologies were supposed to portend.
Thus far however, the bulk of evidence distinguishing the Democratic Party on defense issues in the post-convention media coverage is the unseriousness of its opponents. Given how wide that gap is, and how utterly terrifying a Trump foreign policy would likely be, that distinction might be enough. But there are actual policy issues the next administration will have to deal with, such as an aging force structure or badly needed military compensation reforms. Wonkish engagement with those issues of the kind Senator Nunn provided in the past and Senator Reed and Representative Smith, and other Democrats on the Armed Services Committees, have aspired to today will make the actual difference. Chest thumping speeches and reflexive hawkishness will not.