On the April 29 edition of ABC's This Week, during a roundtable discussion about the April 26 Democratic presidential candidates debate, ABC News chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz asserted: “I think when you listen to [Sen. Barack] Obama [D-IL] on national security and when you listen to some other Democrats, as well, it does seem a bit of a foreign language. There is a learning curve there that they all have to get used to.” Raddatz echoed the myth, frequently repeated by the media, that Democrats are weaker and less experienced on issues pertaining to national security and foreign policy than Republicans, despite polling showing that the public does not share that view.
During the lead-up to the 2006 midterm elections, media figures often uncritically reported on the Democrats' "image as soft on national defense" or "the idea that the Democrats are weak on national security." Even after the Democrats' victory in the midterms, the media persist in repeating this talking point, now in the context of the 2008 presidential election. For instance, on the January 10 edition of MSNBC's Tucker, A.B. Stoddard, associate editor of The Hill, asserted that the Democrats “need to prove themselves on national security.” Additionally, on the April 6 edition of NBC's Today, NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert asserted without evidence that “Democrats have always had a difficulty being competitive with the Republicans in the public voters' mind on national security and foreign policy issues.”
In fact, several polls conducted over the past year have shown Democrats with an advantage on national security and foreign policy issues:
- In a March 21-22 poll, Rasmussen Reports found that "[f]orty-six percent ... of voters trust the Democrats more on National Security while 44% prefer Republicans."
- In a March 7-11 New York Times poll, 45 percent of respondents thought that the Democratic Party was “more likely to make the right decisions about the war in Iraq,” while 32 percent said the Republican Party was more likely.
- A February 22-25 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 52 percent of respondents “trust[ed]” congressional Democrats “to do a better job handling ... [t]he U.S. campaign against terrorism” while 39 percent of respondents favored President Bush.
- An Associated Press poll conducted August 15-17, 2006, found that -- including “leaners” -- 47 percent of respondents preferred Democrats when asked, “Who do you trust to do a better job of protecting the country?” By contrast, 40 percent chose Republicans. Without “leaners,” 37 percent of respondents chose Democrats and 32 percent favored Republicans.
- In a February 22-23, 2006, poll, Rasmussen Reports found that respondents had “a slight preference for Democrats in Congress over the President on national security issues. Forty-three percent ... say they trust the Democrats more on this issue today while 41% prefer the President.”
From the April 29 edition of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos:
[begin video clip]
FORMER GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D-NM): If two of our cities were attacked, what would I do? I would respond militarily, aggressively.
OBAMA: The first thing we'd have to do is make sure that we've got an effective emergency response.
FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC): The first thing I would do is be certain I knew who was responsible and I would act swiftly and strongly to hold them responsible for that.
SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY): I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate.
[end video clip]
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (host): The post-debate spin has been dominated by that series of exchanges in the Democrats' first presidential debate on Thursday night. Here to deconstruct that buzz -- as always -- [Washington Post columnist] George Will, [Newsweek International editor and ABC News analyst] Fareed Zakaria, and Martha Raddatz.
And, George, let me start out with that series of exchanges. There was probably no big news, no game-changer over the course of the debate, but Senator Clinton's team and the other candidates have been making a lot of the fact that when Senator Obama was asked, “What would you do if Al Qaeda attacked two U.S. cities?” in his first response, he didn't say the U.S. would respond militarily. He fixed it later, but that was not his instinct. They say that was very telling.
WILL: Well, whether it's telling or not and whether it's salient or not, it goes to his problem, if he has a problem, and that is, he's young. He was a state legislator three or four years ago and the question then is: Is he comfortable with the hard decisions necessary of a president wielding military force and killing people and the question -- the Democrats presumably have a lingering problem with national security questions, although probably less so now than the Republicans have, but I think it's making a molehill out of less than a molehill.
ZAKARIA: Yeah, I think some of this is kind of the question of have you done these debates long enough and know the sound bites and the buttons you're meant to press. And after all, Obama gave a speech in which he said the United States should act militarily, unilaterally, if necessary --
STEPHANOPOULOS: And raise the defense budget.
ZAKARIA: -- and raise the defense budget. So, it doesn't seem to me that there is more here than the fact that Obama didn't do exactly what you're supposed to do in these situations, and clearly at the debate, he -- this is not his format. I think that Obama does much better in speeches. His eloquence comes through; his personality comes through; and this kind of particularly circus, you know -- there's a format where there are so many people -- it doesn't play to his strength.
RADDATZ: But he's going to have to do well in this format because he will -- may well have this format in the future. I think what you had here is a dressed rehearsal for the next debates. In the next debates, they'll all know what mistakes they made -- and there weren't a whole lot of mistakes made, that's for sure -- and how they will come back in the next debate.
I think Obama really does -- I think when you listen to him on national security and when you listen to some other Democrats as well, it does seem a bit of a foreign language. There is a learning curve there that they all have to get used to.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And I think you're exactly right. And I think that's how all the candidates treated it, as kind of a dress rehearsal, and they did try to take away a lot of lessons. George Will, I wonder if one of the lessons for the front-runners is going to have to be: Do they try to find a way to get out of these debates? And I know there's two schools of thoughts. On the one hand, you could say, “OK, they're the big dominant front-runners. They go in there, make no huge mistakes. They win.” On the other hand, when they're up on a stage with six other candidates --
WILL: There's Mike Gravel.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, but setting aside Mike Gravel -- who provided the comic relief -- everyone else seemed credible, seemed intelligent, seemed like they knew what they were talking about. That has to bring the front-runners down a bit.