2020 Democrats can't give Trump the high ground on national security

2020 Democrats can't give Trump the high ground on national security

What is the smartest approach, politically and strategically, for a Democratic presidential candidate to take on matters of defense policy and national security? This question has bedeviled the party since the Vietnam War. 

Democrats are not as a group innately anti-defense, of course, even though Republicans have certainly had political success portraying candidates like George McGovern and Michael Dukakis in such a light. 

Nor do Republicans own any national security magic wand, as the Iraq War experience and other difficult experiences underscore. But still, the Democratic Party faces an important decision as 2020 approaches: How to free up funds for domestic investment and perhaps deficit reduction without handing to Donald Trump the opportunity to claim bragging rights as the most pro-defense presidential candidate?


This question will be difficult given the leftist tendencies of much of the Democratic party today. Indeed, some candidates have already come out for deep cuts to defense spending.

Now, a coalition of activist groups is pushing candidates to pledge to cut the annual national defense budget, which President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal watchdog accuses VOA parent company of wrongdoing under Trump appointee Lawsuit alleges 200K Georgia voters were wrongly purged from registration list Ivanka Trump gives deposition in lawsuit alleging misuse of inauguration funds MORE wants to increase to $750 billion in 2020, by $200 billion. 

Such cuts would take the defense budget well below its typical levels under President Obama, which were in the low $600-billions range in his second term, and bring military spending back toward the levels that prevailed in the 1990s when the world was a less dangerous place. 

In our view, while vigorous debate on numerous matters of defense policy and budgeting is welcome, a $200 billion cut is simply too much. A world with threats like today's revanchist Russia, rising China, activist Iran and nuclearizing North Korea is a fraught place. 

President Trump, for all of his defects, did not create these threats, and simply removing him from office will not eliminate them. Democrats should avoid the temptation to allow themselves to be wrongly portrayed as anti-defense and to allow Trump to claim he is the best candidate for the country's military and national security. 

Even worse, such a platform could egg on the likes of Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korean hackers targeting pharmaceutical companies working on COVID-19 vaccines: report US analyst: North Korea's Kim, family inoculated with experimental Chinese COVID-19 vaccine North Korea puts further restrictions on seawater entry to fight pandemic: state media MORE, as well as Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinPutin says doctors and teachers will get first COVID-19 vaccines in new immunization campaign Scarborough says he'll never return to Republican Party after GOP supported Trump Will Biden choose a values-based or transactional foreign policy? MORE and Xi Jinping, if a Democrat elected with an agenda to pull back from the world winds up in the White House. 


Rather than slash defense budgets by 30 percent, Democrats should look for more targeted ways to distinguish themselves from Trump on matters of national security.

Doing so may not liberate $200 billion a year for domestic investments as some would like, but it might free up several tens of billions of dollars that could be used to strengthen the nation at home without emboldening aggressors overseas.  

These are the kinds of ideas that Democratic presidential candidates might usefully bring to the policy debate this year and next. They are the kinds of concrete proposals that can save real money and advance America's overall military strength without creating major political or strategic vulnerabilities for a candidate espousing them:

1. Emphasize modernizing and improving the readiness of the Department of Defense's existing force structure. However, don't try to grow Navy and Air Force combat strength by 25 percent each, as the Trump plan envisions. 

To be fair to Trump, the Navy's desire to grow its fleet to 355 ships, from the current number of less than 300, dates back to the Obama years. But that idea competes with the higher priorities of unit-by-unit readiness and modernization, as well as mitigation of the current fleet's vulnerabilities in areas such as cyber, and is not affordable.

Instead, in regard to the Navy in particular, try to develop more innovative and efficient ways of maintaining forward naval presence overseas. For example, the Navy can attempt to homeport more ships abroad. 

It can also rotate personnel to forward-deployed ships through "crew swaps" every six months or so rather than waste so much time in frequent open-ocean transit of its major surface combatants.

2. Modernize our strategic nuclear forces, most notably through acquisition of a new ballistic-missile submarine and the B21 bomber and improved nuclear command and control. Also, endorse a nuclear triad, but debate and perhaps scale back other parts of Pentagon's and Department of Energy's nuclear plans. 

Emphasize practical arms control ideas like extension of New START and norms to prevent the creation of satellite-threatening debris in outer space.  

3. Improve missile defense systems, including space-based sensors, but do so without putting weapons in space. For example, a ground-based boost-phase system based in Japan or the Sea of Japan could be a potent capability against North Korea's ICBM threat.

4. Purchase fewer F-35s than the nearly 2,500 the Air Force, Navy and Marines now collectively plan. The F-35 is a good plane but is probably not needed in the numbers now forecast. 

It may be diverting us from aviation needs such as an expanded bomber force and development of long-range unmanned attack aircraft flying off aircraft carriers. Refurbishments of some existing aircraft and greater use of unmanned systems can help compensate for a curtailment of the F-35 program. 

5. Emphasize continued strong military compensation while reforming the military health-care system and closing unneeded bases. 

By returning to the base-closure process of the 1980s and 1990s, rather than the mistaken approach taken by the Bush administration in 2005 that emphasized “jointness” more than efficiency, a future Democratic candidate can make such a process militarily beneficial and economically acceptable or even advantageous for the affected communities. 

6. Increase interoperability and cooperation with allies to allow them to play a larger role in enhancing our collective security. 

Some of this has continued to occur despite Trump, but he has thrown so many monkey wrenches into key American alliances with countries that cooperation has often slowed.

7. While maintaining resoluteness and vigilance in matters of national security, look for realistic opportunities to defuse tensions. This will not be easy. It should not be seen as an alternative to military preparedness or to hardening our own nation against disinformation campaigns and election interference by the likes of Russia, but rather a complement to such efforts. 

Some of this taxonomy may seem wonky. That is precisely the point. By getting into technical military subjects, Democrats will avoid the kind of sweeping statements that can sound anti-defense if twisted by political opponents. 

By getting specific, and concrete, Democrats will demonstrate their knowledge and seriousness about U.S. defense policy.  That is the right way to save some money, avoid conceding the national security high ground to President Trump — and protect the nation and its allies effectively in a dangerous world.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Frank A. Rose is a senior fellow for security and strategy in the foreign policy program at Brookings.