GOP risks losing national security message to Trump agenda

GOP risks losing national security message to Trump agenda
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GOP members of both houses, reeling from last week’s sweeping Democratic victories and an unexpected wave of retirements, must now add foreign policy to their list of political worries.  

Notwithstanding the fact that President Donald Trump’s Asia trip made headlines for not committing missteps, Republicans are becoming concerned that the president’s national security policy could contribute to their eroding electoral chances in 2018.

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Trouble looms. For decades, the GOP has positioned itself as the party of national security, the choice for voters who gravitate toward leaders who support robust defense spending and vigorous diplomatic, commercial and military engagement in world affairs.

 

But instead of strength, there is a pervading sense of Republican weakness on national security. Both former President George W. Bush and Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (R-Ariz.) recently delivered searing attacks against Donald Trump's dark world vision. 

The Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerFormer Dem Tenn. gov to launch Senate bid: report McConnell 'almost certain' GOP will pass tax reform Former New Mexico gov: Trump's foreign policy is getting 'criticized by everybody' MORE (R-Tenn.), publicly questioned the president’s foreign policy, as have many policy experts in his own party. Amazingly, Trump’s own statements regularly conflict with public pronouncements of senior members of his administration

Indeed, apart from ramping up anti-immigration sentiment as a national security solution, the first 10 months of the Trump presidency have offered few goals and even fewer meaningful actions.  

From foot-dragging on implementing sanctions against Russia (as well as declarations of trust in Putin), imploding crucial trade deals, a hell-bent desire to create a hostile neighbor out of Mexico, to the questionable handling of our most dangerous potential conflicts with Iran and North Korea, there is no shortage of new electoral lines of attack from Democrats.

The numbers certainly don’t look good. A recent Associated Press-NORC poll found that 65 percent of Americans — six in 10 independents and even four in 10 Republicans — think Trump’s comments about Kim Jong Un have made the situation with North Korea much worse. 

Another poll by polling shop Greenberg Quinlan Rosner shows a 55-45-percent majority of registered voters trust Democrats in Congress more than Donald Trump on America’s national security. This represents an 18-point swing since March, when a 54-46-percent majority held more trust in Trump.

Finally, a mid-October CNN poll reported that one-in-three Americans now say that national security and foreign policy are the top issues facing the U.S. today, climbing from a combined 22 percent back in March. 

GOP campaign strategists say they are reassured by their opponent’s divisions. Indeed, Democrats need to do much work to move from ideological disagreements to clear messaging. But, campaigns concentrate the mind on what wins.

While health care and the economy will continue to be the most important issues in the 2018 midterm elections, many pollsters now agree that national security lurks as key secondary concern as ordinary Americans watch the White House careen from one self-inflicted international crisis to the next.  

Democrats will argue that President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE has weakened U.S. national security with a chaotic "America First" doctrine that amounts to little more than a search for disruption. Trump has displayed no overarching agenda, no ideology or core beliefs.

Banging from one guardrail to the next, Trump's foreign policy pronouncements seem, like his Twitter feed, entirely unhinged from any common denominators. So what might the Democrats’ campaign messages sound like? Two lines of attack directed at independents are most likely:

1. President Trump is speeding us toward unnecessary conflicts and, perhaps, an unwinnable war. The threats and saber-rattling mean that we can’t trust this president or his party to walk us back from the edge of conflict — a reality check directed at the pseudo-isolationists.

2. The numerous conflicts President Trump is stirring up over multiple geographies and strategic theaters will cost us dearly in resources and lives. Trump’s huge $54-billion proposed increase in today’s armed services may not be enough. Congress may have to provide the military with ever larger resources, perhaps including even reinstating the draft — a message for both mothers and millennials.

Democrats will have no problem presenting evidence to support the indictments. There are ample examples.

Donald Trump now owns this presidency and polls show he is scaring people. Worried Americans may be open to arguments that global leadership is not a zero-sum game, that our leaders must do more to strengthen alliances to protect America’s interests than simply touting an “America First” agenda.

It would be wise for the more reasonable members of the Republican Party to speak up and claw back this space as soon as possible.

Peter Schechter is a political analyst and is the co-host of the foreign policy podcast AltamarHe formerly served as senior vice president of the Atlantic Council and is on Twitter at @pdschechter.