Do Republicans 'Own' The National Security Debate?

Yesterday, lawmakers took the first steps toward stopping the port deal.

Regardless of who is right on the issue, from a PR perspective, this is a tough issue for the Bush Administration to defend.

The problem is that it is very easy to demagogue this issue. It’s easy to make a common-sense argument that the port deal is bad. In politics, simplicity wins. Perception is reality.

But that’s not what I’m writing about today.

In reading the Washington Post story, I stumbled upon a very interesting quote from Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (it’s toward the end of the story). The Post quotes Nick as saying the port issue fits "into a national discussion about which party is better equipped to win the war on terrorism, and Republicans win that issue every time."

I have heard several people make this argument over the last several weeks. What Mr. Nick is basically saying is that political debates are won and lost — not based on the specific details of an argument — but based on whose "turf" the battle is fought. This is because every issue has a built-in skew to one side or the other.

Voters have deep-seated beliefs regarding which political party is better on which issue. So if the subject is healthcare, for instance, Democrats automatically will win. And, so the argument goes, if we’re talking about national security, Republicans win.

By and large, I subscribe to this theory, myself. It’s called, "staying on message." As long as you’re talking about issues that your side wins on, you’re winning.

…But what happens if there is an issue so big that it shifts the paradigm? I mean, that is possible.

Isn’t it dangerous to assume voters will always believe the GOP is the "national security" party? Is it wise to assume we own the national security vote?

For many years the "Party of Lincoln" was the party for African-American voters. Then, something changed. The great depression came along, and FDR changed everything. Suddenly, the Democrats were perceived as caring more about people. Since then, African-Americans have voted in large percentages for the Democrat nominee.

My point is that dramatic events can and do sometimes change perceptions regarding the parties.

Now, I am in no way saying the port issue is significant enough to create a paradigm shift in which the Democrat Party becomes the party associated with national security. It will take a lot for the Democrats to overcome forty years of evidence that the GOP is the party best suited to keep Americans safe.

But why in the world would we do anything to risk this favorable image?