- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2010

Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Iranian nuclear weapons - they dominated elections in recent years, but they’re nowhere to be found in this year’s broad national campaign debate.

For the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the national U.S. election will not hinge on security. But the shift to economic issues does not seem to be helping Democrats as much as history and conventional wisdom would suggest.

“Basically 2010 is the first national election of the economic calamity of 2008,” said Scott Payne, policy adviser for national security at Third Way, a liberal-leaning think tank, who said “2008 was a national security election until the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and that turned the final month of the 2008 election into all about the economy, and the country really hasn’t changed since then.”

The shift in focus is showing up both on the campaign circuit, where jobs, health care and immigration are paramount, and in Congress, where the current Senate debate over the defense policy bill has been dominated by possible fights over gays in the military or immigration. Those debates are threatening to block the bill, which has passed for 48 straight years.

Gallup, which has been polling for years on what voters see as the country’s top priorities and problems, found that the economy emerged as a top concern just after the 2008 elections. It dropped in 2009, only to bounce back up this year.

It’s so overwhelming that a CBS-New York Times poll taken this month found 60 percent of voters said the economy and jobs were the “most important problem facing this country today,” while Afghanistan, Iraq and war registered just 3 percent.

In past years, Democrats were thought to have an advantage in elections that turned on domestic issues, and Republicans were thought to have the upper hand when it came to security elections.

But this year Republicans are running ahead in polls despite the focus on the economy.

Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist, said this isn’t a security or economy election; it’s about Washington having fallen out of touch.

“This is an election about elites and the masses, and just like 2008 was an election about the elites and the masses, just like 2006 was an election about the elites and the masses,” he said. “This will be the third cycle in a row in which somebody will pay with their jobs for that. This time it happens to be the Democrats. Last two times it was the Republicans. If it doesn’t get better, next time it will be everybody.”

The first three elections after the Sept. 11 attacks were dominated by security. Republicans were considered the winners in 2002, when the Homeland Security Department fight helped unseat two Democratic senators, and in 2004, when President George W. Bush kept the White House. In 2006, with fatigue over the war in Iraq peaking, Democrats won back control of both the House and Senate.

Barack Obama, as a presidential candidate in 2008, rode his early opposition to the war in Iraq to the Democratic presidential nomination, and then went toe-to-toe with John McCain in the general election - until the Wall Street collapse late in the year refocused matters.

Mr. Payne, the security analyst at Third Way, said that renewed focus on the economy has eroded gains Democrats had made in recent years on security, to the point that in 2006 and 2008 they ran nearly even with Republicans when voters were asked whom they trusted more on national security. But this year, the GOP has yet again opened a double-digit gap.

“I thought we were going to see a realignment on national security because it was closing and Democrats were becoming more forceful on national security for the first time since the 1960s,” Mr. Payne said. “The economic debates just really sucked all the air out of the room, so I think you’ve seen instead over the last two years a return to form - people are kind of going back to their preconceived notions.”

Still, he said, it’s striking that Mr. Obama still polls well when voters are asked whether they approve of his national security policy, and a generic Democratic security message polls well when stacked up against a Republican message.

Security issues do pop up from time to time in campaigns. In Indiana’s race for a U.S. Senate seat, Republican Dan Coats is attacking Democratic nominee Brad Ellsworth, a sitting congressman, for voting against a Republican motion that would have blocked transfers of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the U.S. Mr. Ellsworth said he voted for other language that still would give Congress a final say before suspected terrorists would be moved to a U.S. prison.

Republicans and Democrats alike said part of the reason Iraq gets less attention this year is that there’s a general consensus that the U.S. is on a path to reduce its role.

But Mr. Payne said Afghanistan, where Mr. Obama has deployed tens of thousands of troops in his own surge, is “getting a bit of a short shrift” from the public.

Mr. McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said national security issues are just as pressing this year, but they’ve been subverted by Democrats’ political concerns. He said Democratic leaders are trying to boost enthusiasm for their party among gay voters and Hispanic voters by tackling thorny issues on the defense bill.

“I think it’s reprehensible,” said Mr. McCain, who wants to offer amendments on how to handle trials for suspected terrorists.

The Senate is scheduled to hold a procedural vote Tuesday to determine whether Republicans will filibuster the measure.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, told reporters Monday that extraneous issues have often been part of the defense policy debate, including a 2000 campaign finance amendment offered by Mr. McCain.

Mr. Levin said that blocking the bill could leave unresolved issues, such as bonuses and pay raises for troops and key decisions about weapons systems.

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