Democrats see opportunity to seize national security narrative

Story highlights

  • Democrats plan to hammer Donald Trump on national security during the general election
  • The foreign policy focus won't be limited to the presidential race

(CNN)The harsh words from President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton toward Donald Trump this week -- in which the two Democratic leaders said Trump is unfit to serve as commander in chief -- preview a broader general election strategy from the presumptive Democratic nominee.

"Foreign policy is the playing field on which Hillary Clinton is making the argument that Donald Trump is disqualified," a top Clinton aide told CNN. The focus on national security was the plan even before the terror attack in Orlando, as Clinton's first major speech of the general election was a national security take-down of Trump.
Foreign policy may be a staple of Clinton's wheelhouse, but it is new presidential campaign terrain for the Democratic Party, which has traditionally been more comfortable fighting on domestic turf. In 2004, the first presidential election after 9/11, George W. Bush and his allies aggressively painted Vietnam veteran John Kerry as weak on national security, even calling into question his war record with the infamous series of "swift boat" ads. The argument was so effective that when Osama bin Laden released a video just days before the election, it further sealed Kerry's defeat.
    But this year, top Democrats believe the party has a leg up on foreign policy and a chance to mirror the strategy that helped fuel Democrats' takeover Congress in 2006.
    "People were so concerned with President Bush and policies that they viewed as reckless, and not particularly thoughtful, that they opened the door to Democrats on national security," said New York Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, who believes the same thing is happening now. "People view Donald Trump as reckless, antagonistic and uninformed, and they are opening the door to Democrats."
    The foreign policy focus won't be limited to the presidential race. This week, Israel, who is in charge of messaging strategy for House Democrats, delivered a closed-doors briefing on why national security should be Democrats' 2016 calling card. He says Trump has already delivered some traditional Republican supporters to the Democratic side.
    "You see military officials, who now retired, saying that for the first time in a long time, they're going to vote for a Democrat," Israel said. "They don't trust Donald Trump as the commander in chief."
    Despite Clinton's long record and experience as secretary of state, new polling suggests the Democratic nominee will have her work cut out for her on foreign policy. A Bloomberg Politics poll released Wednesday shows Trump 5 points ahead of Clinton on the question of who is best to handle terror threats at home and abroad.
    Even Republicans who are hesitant about their own nominee argue that Clinton is damaged goods on national security because she is inextricably linked to Obama. Idaho Republican Sen. James Risch, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, argued Clinton's record might be her undoing.
    "Just because you have experience doesn't mean you're right," he said. "The experience has lead us down a very awful path."
    And Lanhee Chen, who served as policy director for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, said it will be hard for Clinton to both own the President's record while also trying to explain why she is the better candidate to handle this issue.
    But other Republicans, such as New York Rep. Peter King, worry that from a political point of view, Trump's tone will undermine the GOP's arguments against Obama's legacy. He argues that Trump needs to "show more sophistication and more knowledge" when it comes to national security.
    "Just saying things like if we stop all the Muslims we're going to win -- we're not," King said.
    Democrat pollster Geoff Garin agrees with this assessment. "I think what Americans are looking for is a national security policy that is both smart and strong, and we're still close enough to previous interventions where Americans are concerned about somebody who they think might be reckless in their conduct on foreign policy. Trump's stamp on the Republican Party creates a real opportunity for Democrats to be the party that really represents the right balance between smart and strong."
    Now, as the general election battle heats up, the fight over national security is likely to play out just like other issues: a stark choice between someone who is different but unknown, versus someone with experience and a long record.