Case Study

The Security Gap

For three decades after the Vietnam War, the public perceived a huge gap between the two parties in their ability to protect the country. Republicans were seen as tough-minded hawks, willing to do what it takes to ensure our security; Democrats were viewed as quavering doves, out of touch with the military and afraid to use force, even when necessary. This gap, which grew to 35 percentage points, was more than just a political problem for Democrats—when one party isn’t trusted to protect the nation, it has profound implications for their ability to govern effectively.

The 2004 election, with the nation at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, saw the defeat of John Kerry, a decorated war hero, largely on the depth and persistence of the security gap. Third Way then launched a major campaign to sketch the contours of the problem and to find a way to close the security gap. We hosted as series of retreats with foreign policy experts and conducted extensive public opinion research designed to evaluate the depth of the problem.

The result was our groundbreaking “Tough and Smart” framework, which was widely adopted in the 2006 election cycle—incumbent Senators and dozens of candidates were using it in their races, and it was a part of the messaging by both Democratic presidential candidates in 2008. We hosted a series of trainings on national security for first-time Senate and House candidates, working in close conjunction with the DSCC as well as then-Representative Jane Harman and the DCCC. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who gave a talk at the trainings, called Third Way's work with candidates, “one of the best things to happen to Democrats in a long, long time.”

In addition to the framing and message guidance, Third Way has offered and moved a number of significant policy ideas. First, we proposed increasing the end-strength of the U.S. military’s ground forces by 100,000 troops at a time when the Army and Marine Corps were facing serious strain from the demands of fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That troop increase, which was co-sponsored by then-Senator Clinton and many others, became law in 2006 and helped eased the pressure on the force until after the withdrawal from Iraq in 2010.

The following year, we proposed launching an intelligence reserve training corps to parallel the military’s ROTC program. That proposal also became law.

As the nation seeks to rebalance its military posture after the end of two wars, Third Way launched its “Making the Case” series, which provides succinct summaries of difficult policy ideas. We consult regularly with a number of Senators, the House Democratic Caucus, the House Democratic Budget Group, and the House National Security Task Force. Our experts have been consulted on questions of authority for war, government electronic surveillance, defense budget matters, and other issues.

Third Way experts seek to tamp down the partisan debates on national security issues. We countered the conspiracy theorists on Benghazi by explaining the way that the intelligence establishment actually reacts in a crisis. We rebutted those who criticized the Administration’s successful effort to get rid of chemical weapons in Syria. We explained the history of prisoner transfers in the wake of the Bergdahl exchange.

Now, Third Way has begun a major effort to provide moderate Members of Congress with security ideas that they can build a legacy around. Just as Senators like Sam Nunn and Scoop Jackson became leaders in driving changes in our security institutions, this moment also requires leadership from Congress to modernize our security apparatus and systems to meet the demands of a complex and dangerous world. We are committed to ensuring that they have the fresh ideas and support they need to help bring about those changes.