(Chapter by Senior Associate Joseph Cirincione in "America's Peace Dividend," edited by Ann Markusen and published on-line by Columbia International Affairs Online, December 2000)

Defense issues affect national elections in at least two major ways. They impact on the state and local level largely as a result of the local economic impact of a candidate’s positions. They now impact national campaigns largely indirectly, that is, the candidate’s defense positions can tell the public a great deal about the candidate’s leadership ability and trustworthiness. Unless taken to an extreme, the particulars of a national candidate’s defense policy positions are not likely to swing voters one way or the other.

The Local and State Influences on Campaign Positions

While analysts are keen to write detailed position papers for presidential candidates and national committees, as the campaigns unfold, these proposals are left behind in the formal, and usually vague, position papers of the candidate. The more urgent calls for information on defense issues usually come two days before the candidate is due to be at a particular city and usually involve critical details on defense contracts or other issues of constituent concern. The candidates seek to broaden their appeal, particularly after the conventions (or, these days, after Super Tuesday), and will tailor their speeches to ensure that they include applause lines supporting particular defense programs or sensitive issues such as troop rotation, readiness, veterans benefits, laboratory missions, support for each military service, etc.

This means that national elections tend to lock in a national commitment to existing and future defense programs. They will usually forestall serious reductions in defense budgets and could well mandate increases. National and state candidates tend to shift to the right on defense issues during campaigns, thus, campaign season is, in general, not an opportune moment for pushing a military reform issue. This pattern appears to be holding for the 2000 elections, despite several important reform proposals outlined early in the year by the campaign of Governor George W. Bush.

The Presidential Image

Regardless of party affiliation, the challenger almost always launches an assault on the incumbent’s defense positions. These attacks are usually successful when they come from the right, again regardless of party affiliation. John F. Kennedy’s attack on the Republican "missile gap" and Ronald Reagan’s attack on the Democrats’ "window of vulnerability" are now considered very successful tactics, even though they were based on completely fictitious beliefs. Attacks sometimes also work when launched from the "left" as in Lyndon Johnson’s "daisy ad" attack on Barry Goldwater in 1964, implying that Goldwater would start a nuclear war, but examples of such success from "left" assaults are rare. In addition, Republican candidates always attack the Democrats as weak on defense (just as Democrats always attack the Republicans for threatening Social Security).

This year will be no exception. Republican strategists believe that defense, and national missile defense in particular, will be a wedge issue for them. They are now and will continue attacking the Democrats for failing to defend America. This strategy failed completely in 1996 (for details, please see Joseph Cirincione, "How the Right Lost the Missile Defense Debate," Foreign Policy, Spring 1997). Nonetheless, Republicans are determined to try it again.

The Continuous Campaign

It is often said that the Clinton administration never really stopped campaigning. This is also true of the Republicans in Congress. Over the past six years, congressional leaders have waged a skillful, comprehensive and relentless assault on the Clinton administration’s defense policies (as well as other policy and personal issues) through committee hearings, investigations and special commissions.

The Administration responded to the Republican criticisms, in part, on the merits, but mostly as a preemptive move to ensure that national defense did not become an issue in the 1996 or 2000 campaigns. Administration officials apparently concluded that they were willing to give ground on their original defense policy positions in order to preserve their freedom of action in other, more vital, areas. Their primary tools were budget increases and triangulation.

The president, for example, rebuffed charges of lowered readiness and underfunding of procurement with annual increases over previously planned budget levels. The president did not terminate a single major weapon system during his two terms. President Clinton answered the drive to deploy missile defense by embracing defenses and reducing the argument from whether to when, and how, a system would be deployed.

Thus, the impact of these issues on the 2000 campaign has–to a large extent–already been felt. The result is policy positions that are virtually identical except for details that may matter a great deal to experts and allies, but not much to the public at large.

Similarly, the Clinton strategy has already worked politically. For the first time in decades, the Democrats are not vulnerable to charges of being weak on defense. This is one of the most significant "New Democrat" legacies from President Clinton and a significant shift from the elections of 1980, 1984, and 1988. The strategy was also aided by the public’s general apathy for defense and foreign policy issues that do not involve commitment of U.S. troops.

Republican strategists confuse opinion polls that show that a majority of the public supports a national missile defense system with the saliency of the issue for voters. Missile defense, in particular, and defense, in general, are not key motivating factors for voters. Americans do not feel threatened by military attack, and to the extent that they do, it is fear of terrorism, not missiles.

Defense issues, then, are likely to factor in the 2000 campaign only rhetorically and only then in the first stages of the campaign proper. Republicans will continue to attack the Democrats on defense, but if they do not draw blood, the issue will fade after the summer conventions. Candidates realize that every minute they spend talking about defense is a minute they could dedicate to discussing something that really does matter to voters, like jobs, taxes, education, or health care.

Thus, in a very real sense, as long as there is not a particular constituent interest, it does not matter what a candidate’s position is on most defense issues as long as the candidate expresses that opinion strongly and forcefully so as not to raise any doubts about his or her leadership abilities or intestinal fortitude. Candidates have much more latitude on these issues then they appear to believe.


On the most contentious defense issue, it is now increasingly likely that President Clinton will either defer a decision to deploy a national missile defense system, or try to fudge the issue with an "ambiguous deployment" decision. A decision, for example, that announces "our intention to proceed with preparations for the possible deployment" of a system while we continue to discuss the issue with Russia and our allies and continue testing the feasibility of the technology. He will not make a decision to abrogate the ABM treaty and could argue that the steps he is considering would not violate the treaty.

Absent any sudden international crisis, this is likely to be considered a non-controversial answer to the problem that has the highest profile of any defense issue in the campaign. It could successfully kick the missile defense can down the road and with it the entire defense debate for Campaign 2000.

After the election, a great deal depends on who controls the House of Representatives. Historically, the most productive and effective combination has been a Republican president and a Democratic House. Republican presidents, particular when encouraged (or restrained) by a Democratic House, have far greater latitude for sweeping defense initiatives than do Democratic presidents. While this sometimes means significant budget increases, it can also mean cancellations of controversial weapons systems and major advances in arms control. Most of the major elements of the non-proliferation regime were enacted by Republican presidents, including the Non-Proliferation treaty, the Biological Weapons conventional, the Chemical Weapons Convention as well as the ABM Treaty and the first START treaty.

If Vice-President Al Gore were to win the election but fail to recapture the House for the Democratic Party, it is very likely that the existing stalemate on defense issues will continue, though without the personal animosity that has characterized the political debate in recent years. If the Democrats capture both the White House and the House of Representatives, it will likely also mean a reduced Republican majority in the Senate. The Republican Party would be disillusioned and in disarray. Under these political conditions, the new president could also enact sweeping defense reforms and initiatives, though the Clinton administration failed to do so when it had the opportunity in 1993 and 1994.

The most critical period for defense policy formation may not be during the campaign, but in the first six months following the election.