There's been lots of good news for Democrats in the past week: The economy is looking better with positive gross domestic product numbers and a deal to stabilize the European debt crisis. Polls indicate the public continues to side with President Obama on the jobs bill.
A Fox News Channel poll found that 52 percent of Americans think the president has good ideas for increasing job growth but the GOP is to blame for blocking him. And while the president’s approval numbers are low, in the mid-40s, his rating is about twice as high as that of congressional Republicans.
The biggest news, however, has attracted almost no attention.
Republicans are in imminent danger of losing their ownership of the national security issue ahead of the 2012 elections. Even before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, they won scores of campaigns on the idea that their party was the one to trust to protect America and expertly handle the military.
But that political calling card is slipping away and Republicans are beginning to panic.
How else can one explain the incoherent and, at times, self-contradictory statements coming from leading Republicans in the last week in response, first, to Obama’s announcement that U.S. troops are leaving Iraq and, second the success of the U.S. strategy in ousting Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi?
The likely Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, could not bring himself to congratulate Obama for sticking to former Republican President George W. Bush’s timetable for ending more than seven years of war in Iraq that had resulted in more than 4,000 deaths of U.S. troops.
Instead, Romney issued this bitter statement about the announced withdrawal: “President Obama’s astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women.”
So, the position of the all-but-presumptive Republican nominee is that the United States should stay in Iraq even longer than the Bush administration wanted and in disregard of the Iraqi people and American public opinion?
On Libya, the GOP is digging itself into even deeper trouble.
As far back as March, Romney and other leading Republicans criticized the president for waiting too long to get involved in Libya. Romney told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that Obama’s “inability to have a clear and convincing foreign policy made him delegate to the United Nations and the Arab League” decisions about U.S. involvement in Libya. In July, Romney went further. He expressed reservations about U.S. involvement in efforts aimed at removing Qaddafi.
“Who’s going to own Libya if we get rid of the government there?” he asked.
Similarly, rising GOP star Florida Sen. Marco Rubio could not give Obama credit for his handling of the mission in Libya. He did, however, credit French and British forces before going into a tortured criticism of the timing and tactics of the mission: “My point is, if the U.S. had gotten involved early, aggressively and decisively, today would have happened months ago, Libya wouldn’t be as destroyed, it wouldn’t cost as much money to rebuild them, there wouldn’t be as many people dead or injured, and there wouldn’t be as many militias or rockets missing.”
Maybe the senator did not notice that not a single U.S. soldier died in Libya.
The failure to acknowledge America’s strategic military triumph in Libya is just the latest evidence of how Republicans are upset at losing their political claim as masters of defense policy.
Obama has significantly increased the number of Predator drone strikes in Middle Eastern countries, killing scores of terrorists without placing U.S. soldiers in immediate danger.
Those victories — including Obama’s proposal to increase defense spending in next year’s budget — have come at a political price for the president. He has alienated some in his liberal base who perceive him as too hawkish.
But in political calculus he is perfectly positioned as a capable commander in chief heading into the 2012 elections. After bin Laden’s death, the president saw his Gallup poll numbers go up by about 6 points; after Al Awlaki’s death in September he got a 3-point jump; and after Qaddafi was killed he got another 3-point jump.
These are not big numbers. And they have not compensated for the national anxiety over the economy. But if the economy continues to build on last week’s good news with steady growth, the GOP will have to find another line of attack going into November 2012.
And when they look for that old reliable — the GOP advantage on defense in the minds of most voters — they will find it missing.