TCS Daily

Blue Blockers

By Brian Kennedy - February 26, 2003 12:00 AM

Inspector Gregory: "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

Sherlock Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

"The dog did nothing in the night-time."

"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
- "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" by Arthur Conan Doyle

In keeping with time-honored tradition, President Bush last month stood before Congress to deliver the State of the Union Address. Those Democrats who at this early date spend their days traveling the back roads of Iowa campaigning to be Bush's opponent in the 2004 responded by haranguing the President on healthcare, tax cuts, and spending priorities and expressing skepticism about unilateral action in Iraq.

However, curiously breaking with their tradition, not one of the Democrats competing in the Iowa Caucuses took notable exception to one of the President's most far-reaching national security initiatives, the deployment of a strategic missile defense system - a curiosity that may have much to do with the electoral map and the changing nature of campaign wedge issues.


The politics of missile defense have historically been quite partisan. Since Ronald Reagan first proposed the vision of a national missile shield, opposition to missile defense has been part and parcel of the Democrats' platform. Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis both derided it. And when running for President in 1992, Bill Clinton gave lip service to continue funding for research but upon being sworn into office dramatically reduced the budget for ballistic missile defense.

But in the mid-1990's, the politics of missile defense began to shift. The Contract with America explicitly called for "renewing the U.S.'s commitment to an effective national missile defense by requiring DOD to deploy anti-ballistic missile systems capable of defending the U.S. against ballistic missile attacks." About this same time it became evident to U.S. intelligence services that rogue nations were developing missile technology and North Korea tested a missile with the capability of targeting Alaska or Hawaii. As the nation grew increasingly concerned about the threat of missile attack, President Clinton found himself straddling a political fault line. Accordingly, he followed the Republican Congress' lead and allowed increased funding for research and development, but for the remainder of his term stalled on ordering system deployment.

In the 2000 campaign, the lines were clearly drawn. Candidate Bush called for immediate deployment while Al Gore waffled on the issue. Gore said he could support a very limited missile defense but also stated his reluctance to withdraw from the ABM treaty and disparaged Bush's position as a "star wars proposal."

The reticence by those who aspire to be the first Democratic nominee of the post-Clinton era to echo Gore's critique says much about the changing nature of wedge issues and electoral map politics. Modern Presidential campaigns are waged utilizing wedge issues to shift voting behavior of targeted segments of the electorate. In the 1970's and 1980's Presidents Nixon, Reagan and George H. W. Bush successfully employed social issues such as crime and welfare to wedge southerners away from their Democratic heritage. In the 1990's President Clinton raided electoral votes in the upper Midwest by stressing education, gun control and healthcare to capture the votes of moderate Republicans living in suburbia. By 2000, Bush and Gore wedged each other into an electoral college stand off.

In the wake of September 11th the wedge issues of 2004 are likely to be rooted in policy questions of national security and defending the homeland... issues such as missile defense. Further, these security issues may have the most salience in states that Democrats rely upon for electoral votes and to populate their Congressional delegation.

Blue Blockers

The colors of the 2000 electoral map illustrated in stark relief that the nation's partisan divisions are not solely cultural, but also geographic. Bush voters reside in "Red" states, big expanses spreading across the South, the Sunbelt and the Mountain West, while Gore voters were dense packed in pockets of "Blue" representing the major cities of the Metroliner corridor, the rust belt and the Pacific coast. The irony here is the most loyal Democrat voters live in locales likely to be targeted in a missile attack. Accordingly, the direct beneficiaries of a strategic missile defense are not those who live in Tupelo, Kearney or Cheyenne. Rather it is far more likely that North Korea, or a terrorist launching a missile from the deck of a freighter 100 miles off the coast, would strike Seattle, San Francisco or New York City.

Democratic politicians are learning to make missile defense a consensus issue for the same reasons Republicans are reluctant to rail against farm subsidies. In the politics of the day, Democrats have to tread carefully on issues of national security and homeland defense for fear of creating a new set of wedge issues with which President Bush and the Republicans can raid their base. In short, fear of losing a working mother's vote in Redmond, as much as fear of the regime in Pyongyang, may explain why Hillary Clinton joined the standing ovation when President Bush declared in the State of the Union, "And this year, for the first time, we are beginning to field a defense to protect this nation against ballistic missiles."

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