The national security advantage

I saw someone joke the other day that if Republicans win the White House next year, the new president should ask Barack Obama to stick around — he should be put in charge of killing bad guys and taking down dictatorial regimes.

It was just a joke, of course. But the point behind the joke got me thinking: maybe the assumptions about parties and strengths are due for an overhaul.

At least for my lifetime, there’s been an unshakable conventional wisdom as to which parties are identified with which issues. Democrats had credibility on health care, education, and the environment; Republicans had credibility on the military. Dems are seen as caring about helping families; Republicans are seen as caring about hurting bad guys. Dems are thoughtful; Republicans are tough.

But these assumptions are clearly out of date, and Greg Sargent had a good piece yesterday asking whether Republicans still have any claims left on a perceived advantage on national security.

[B]eyond Obama’s reelection, it’s worth asking whether Obama’s string of victories on foreign policy will have a more far reaching effect by putting an end to the GOP’s dominance on the issue for a long time.

Putting aside the entirely legitimate criticism of Obama’s penchant for secrecy and his disappointing civil liberties record, the Obama administration got Bin Laden, decimated Al Qaeda, and helped set in motion the fall of Gaddafi. He has done this while taking steps to improve relations with the broader Muslim world and, now, while essentially ending the Iraq War, which once was the most polarizing issue in this country. His outreach to the Muslim world and initial opposition to the Iraq War once got him branded as weak, but in light of his larger record anyone pointing to these things as signs of softness on national security will come across as hollow, spiteful, and unpersuasive.

In other words, Obama has completely scrambled the traditional calculus. GOP criticism of Obama’s policy on Libya — and Mitt Romney’s criticism of Obama’s announcement today — sounds confused and incoherent. The neocons seem to have lost their grip on Republican candidates and officials, with many of them now veering between ill-defined isolationism and a desire to avoid foreign policy completely. The GOP seems rudderless on the issue.

To be sure, Dems still have the advantage on domestic policies like health care and education, but given recent events, it would appear the party has also claimed the credibility Republicans used to have on national security and foreign affairs.

Also note, it’s not just Obama. Bill Clinton was a celebrated international leader who won well-executed wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, while also preventing domestic terror attacks. George W. Bush failed badly on every relevant front — he failed to take the terrorist threat seriously; he mismanaged two wars; and he was reviled around the globe — only to be followed by Barack Obama, who established a rather exceptional record, not only in restoring American credibility on the global stage, but in combating terrorists, advancing counter-proliferation, and working with coalition partners to advance democracies in countries like Libya.

So, I thought I’d open this up to some discussion. Is the Republicans’ advantage over national security an antiquated notion to be discarded? If not, how much more will it take?