According to Bob Woodward and the anonymous senior official who published an op-ed in the New York Times last week, President Trump is unhinged. This is not breaking news, of course. These latest testimonials are fresh in our minds, but they echo reports from a cast as varied as Omarosa Manigault-Newman, who titled her own tell-all White House memoir “Unhinged,” and ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had to publicly deny referring to his boss as a “fucking moron.” Trump’s White House is by all accounts a hub of dysfunction.
These tabloid-esque moments are frequently sprinkled with disturbing details about President Trump’s handling of foreign policy and national security. Anonymous writes that the President “shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un,” while Woodward notes that the President’s behavior at a National Security Council meeting led Secretary of Defense James Mattis to compare Trump to “a fifth- or sixth-grader.”
Does this matter to voters? It is conventional wisdom that Americans do not care about foreign policy, or about inside-the-Beltway parlor gossip. But nothing about this administration is conventional, and the American public seems to be as sick of the chaos Trump brings to the job, and the dangers that presents, as they are about any of his other failings. Indeed, evidence is mounting that voters do care about Trump’s erratic behavior and its impact on our security. And with the midterms fast approaching, this could portend a shift in whom voters trust to keep the country safe.
Over the summer, the organization I direct—National Security Action—polled 1,000 likely voters on their attitudes toward national security and foreign policy. In part, we were interested in determining whether Trump’s unique behavior and policy decisions—including siding with Vladimir Putin over the U.S. intelligence community, and locking children in cages for trying to seek better lives in America—had made a dent in the traditional Republican advantage on national security.
We undertook this exercise clear-eyed about what we might find. For decades, Republicans have attempted to out-tough Democrats, at least rhetorically, in confronting our successive foes: Communism, the Soviet Union, and, more recently, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Even after the foreign policy failures of George W. Bush’s administration, most polls in late 2008 gave Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, a sizable national security and foreign policy edge over then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). Even in the 2016 election, Trump, who ran against arguably the most experienced foreign policy candidate the Democrats have ever nominated, polled neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton in that arena.
We found that Trump’s erratic personality and the consequences of his decisions have turned him into a significant liability for Republicans. In question after question, voters agreed that Trump casually issues threats and increases tensions with allies and adversaries alike; that he fails to think through his actions and acts recklessly; and that he flip-flops so often on important policy questions that our allies no longer trust us. Only a third of poll respondents believed that the President has both the right policies and the right temperament to be commander in chief—while a large majority concluded that Trump had made America less respected and a clear plurality said he had made us less safe.
The message that these voters were sending was clear: Democrats no longer need to treat foreign policy and national security as electoral liabilities. In fact, we found that voters will be more likely, not less, to support Democrats who pledge to hold the President to account in these realms.
We don’t yet know what November will hold: two months is a political lifetime, especially under a mercurial president whose legislative agenda has stalled and who retains power sufficient over foreign affairs to act out his worst impulses. But we are already seeing indications that politicians on both sides of the aisle are treating this election cycle differently. Some Republican candidates are distancing themselves from the president, and especially from his handling of family separation, and a self-defeating trade war. According to an August Brookings Institution analysis, a majority of House Republican challengers had not mentioned the President at all in their campaigns. Conversely, the Democratic slate has dozens of candidates with national security experience who have not been shy about calling out the ways this president is endangering Americans. Take, for example, Democratic candidates like Amy McGrath and Elaine Luria—both veterans—who, in the aftermath of the Helsinki summit, used the debacle to hammer both their opponents and the president. Republicans are running from the president, while Democrats are running at him.
This is a healthy response to a president who acts recklessly and thoughtlessly and seems to welcome taking unnecessary risks. He sells out American interests and values, he alienates allies and embraces autocrats, especially if their delegations spend lavishly at Trump’s hotel in Washington, DC. The good news is that these behaviors matter and voters care. Trump’s self-styled “unconventional” approach may have won him just enough electoral votes to become president in 2016, but Americans are souring on casual tweets about nuclear weapons, impetuous trade wars, and Trump’s penchant for sucker-punching our closest allies—an approach that has left us in a constant state of unnecessary crisis.
To get elected in 2018, Democrats are determined to campaign on the bread-and-butter issues: health care and the economy, among others—and they absolutely should. But what today’s landscape reinforces is that Democrats should not shy away from talking about how Trump’s recklessness has damaged our safety and standing in the world. Just by being himself, Trump has made national security an arena in which Democrats can credibly compete—and win.
Jeff Prescott served as special assistant to President Obama for national security affairs, senior director for the Middle East on the National Security Council, and as deputy national security advisor and senior Asia advisor to Vice President Biden. He is a Senior Fellow of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, and a graduate of Yale Law School.