From the end of the Second World War, the Republican Party has enjoyed an advantage from the perception that they, not Democrats, are the strongest party on national defense. The foreign policy acumen of presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, when contrasted with the challenges faced by Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter, bore this out. In 2004, Republican President George Bush was reelected largely by voters concerned about defense and the ongoing war in Iraq, and who trusted him to resolve the threat of terrorism.
As with so many electoral traditions, this one has been blown out of the water in the year of Donald Trump. In the field of national security, Hillary Clinton brought coherent and intelligent ideas to discuss; Trump brought only bluster. On ISIL, Clinton endorsed the current, highly effective strategic framework of supporting local Arab and Kurdish forces to rollback ISIL in Iraq and Syria, while targeting the terror group with airstrikes. Trump responded with his consistent talking point that the United States could have preempted the rise of ISIL by “taking the oil,” a logistically infeasible, logically incoherent, and legally questionable suggestion that not a single military officer or national security analyst considers acceptable. Clinton’s deeper understanding of the challenge of ISIL at the debate showcased her clear superiority on national defense issues in comparison to Trump.
Beyond his own personal ignorance of foreign affairs, Trump is leaving an imprint on the Republican Party that may be difficult to erase. At the debate, Trump defended criticisms he has made of NATO, suggesting that as a businessman he thought NATO members should pay more, with the implied threat he made previously that without higher contributions the United States would not defend its NATO allies. He also suggested the alliance is obsolete for not responding to terrorism, even though the only invocation of Article V, the collective defense provisions of the North Atlantic Charter, was in 2001, after 9/11. NATO has played a key role in upholding global security and American national defense, making Trump’s ignorance and skepticism of the organization alarming and utterly divorced from reality.
However, much more alarming, is the effect his rhetoric appears to be having on Republican voters. In recent polls, only 43 percent of Republican voters expressed support for NATO. Equally as alarming is the change in how Republican voters view Vladimir Putin. Trump has consistently defended Putin, and suggested that the United States is at fault for recent tensions with Russia, ignoring Russian military aggression in Ukraine. This view is also shaping the wider Republican Party. While still generally unfavorable, Republican voters now view Putin more favorably than they view either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Trump’s views on NATO and Putin are clearly having an impact on the GOP, and shifting it away from its orientation as the party most serious about national defense.
The first presidential debate highlighted numerous differences between Clinton and Trump, but the divide on national security knowledge was especially stark. Beyond the knowledge and experience levels, however, Clinton’s clear understanding and engagement with global politics demonstrated a seriousness and expertise regarding national security, which has steadily become more and more apparent in the wider Democratic Party. Regardless of the outcomes of future debates, and the election, the Democratic Party may be in the process of claiming the mantle of the party of the common defense.