National Security and the 2014 Midterms:
A Preview of Monday’s CQ Roll Call / Just Security Event

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This Tuesday marks the first anniversary of the launch of Just Security. To help celebrate our first year, we’re co-sponsoring an event tomorrow with CQ Roll Call on the role of national security issues in the 2014 midterm elections–and in shaping Congress’s agenda thereafter. The panel will run from 5:30-7:00 p.m. at NYU’s Washington, DC Center (1307 L Street, N.W.), and features Rachel Kleinfeld (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), Gerald Seib (Wall Street Journal), Tim Starks (CQ Roll Call), Cully Stimson (Heritage Foundation), and yours truly, and will be moderated by David Ellis (Vice President of News for CQ Roll Call). Full details (and a link to RSVP) are available here. But in advance of tomorrow’s discussion, I asked Rachel, Jerry, Tim, and Cully to help set the stage with their quick reactions to three sets of broad, overarching questions:

  1. In your view, will national security issues play a pivotal role in the 2014 midterms—or at least some of the key races therein? If yes, how? If not, why not?
  2. Should national security issues play a larger role in the midterms? (Why / why not?)
  3. Among the universe of national security issues, which one(s) do you see as most likely to help shape the agenda of the 114th Congress?


Question 1: In your view, will national security issues play a pivotal role in the 2014 midterms—or at least some of the key races therein? If yes, how? If not, why not?

Rachel Kleinfeld: Pivotal, as in altering election outcomes: only in a very few districts that are heavily military.  Important, as in affecting how voters view a candidate as a whole – yes.  With war against ISIL likely to be ongoing, and military troops potentially still deployed to build hospitals in Africa, it will be hard for candidates to avoid questions about how they would use force and under what circumstances they will deploy our military. Also, national security issues are largely character issues for voters.  Voters will be looking for characteristics such as personal strength and forthrightness, as proxies for how a candidate might approach national issues of warfare and their approach to dealing with other countries, as well as their comfort with the military itself in heavily military districts.  These won’t be termed “national security” votes, but candidates who appear to lack the personal characteristics needed for good judgment on these issues (with the content of the characteristics dependent on the political composition of the district), will be dinged.

Jerry Seib: I still think they will, in the end, be more marginal than pivotal; the question is whether Republicans can morph security concerns and terrorism fears into a broader Obama-not-up-to-it theme that works to their benefit in what are essentially local races. These are shaping up more as local races than ones pushed by an overarching national theme this year.

Tim Starks: Overall, no, national security is not likely to be pivotal, unless the situation with ISIS gets much, much worse or some unforeseen crisis pops up. However, it always ends up playing a role in some individual races — a candidate’s military history might come into question, say, or an ad like the Michael Grimm 9/11 ad could backfire, etc. And if national security worsens the president’s negatives even more, it could drag down his party on Election Day, too.

Cully Stimson: As the threat from ISIS evolves and grows, American voters may become more concerned about national security.  However, unless things change drastically, national security matters won’t be on the top of voters’ minds this November for most races. Recent polls suggest that voters care most about domestic issues, to include healthcare (Obamacare), the economy, spending, taxes and the like.  Russia’s activities in the Ukraine, and ISIS’s influence in Iraq and Syria are not pressing issues to most voters.

Question 2: Should national security issues play a larger role in the midterms? (Why / why not?)

Rachel Kleinfeld: It would probably make things worse.  Congress now votes on national security issues based on how the soundbites will look in political attack ads.  Legislative packages are built for “gotcha” games that force votes on poison pill issues as well as important national needs, for just this reason.  The more political national security issues are, the greater the temptation to play politics.  Meanwhile, Congress is already being cut out of issues of warfare.  This is due largely to their own fecklessness – but it is also not how our system is supposed to work and is likely against U.S. law.  Meanwhile, Congress plays games with the budget in equally feckless ways to appeal to voters; affecting national security directly as well as making America look like a broken political system abroad.  This affects our alliances and the views of competitor nations about whether to take us seriously. If we had less gerrymandered districts, we could have real debates, and then it would be wise to have national security be a campaign issue for Members of Congress.  But until we fix that broken system, Members are forced to play to the fringes, and this is horrible for good policy.

Jerry Seib: They definitely should play a larger role. There are important unresolved issues about America’s role in the world after more than a decade of war, and a new approach to intervention (limited but not non-existent) that President Obama is trying, which should be up for national discussion.

Tim Starks: Yes, it should be playing a larger role. People are almost always going to vote on the economy first and foremost, but the number of unstable regimes/war zones and unanswered threats is on the rise. This isn’t just bias based on my beat; in 2012, I would not have argued that national security deserved a larger role in the elections than it had.

Question 3: Among the universe of national security issues, which one(s) do you see as most likely to help shape the agenda of the 114th Congress?

Rachel Kleinfeld: The War Powers Act: When is our country at war?  What counts as war?   When does Congress get to have a vote? The budget: Not just the numbers. A united national security budget that pulled together foreign aid, foreign operations, and military costs is a first step, but figuring out how to have more flexible funds across these silos is something external groups will push for hard, as it makes good policy sense.  Congress will resist, as it removes their powers of oversight unless they reorganize the antiquated committee system, which is unlikely to happen. The withdrawal from Afghanistan: anticipate another Benghazi bloodfest. Equipping and acting in the fight against ISIL – which may well spread into Yemen as well as Syria: a war powers and budget issue as well as fodder for Members trying to appear on Sunday talk shows. Immigration: Our southern border, the drug war, Mexico and Central America as narco-states, and gang warfare all wrapped up in fights over immigration and border policy rather than addressing the root causes of these problems in venal regimes abroad and, gun policy and drug demand at home.

Jerry Seib: I think the rise of the Islamic State threat is going to throw open once again the question of how much the U.S. can afford to reduce defense spending. In addition, I think it unlikely that this Congress will entirely resolve the question of how much authority the president gets, and for how long, to fight the Islamic State fight, so that will be back on the radar screen.

Tim Starks: Iraq will likely still be #1 to start on the 114th agenda, as it is now. But the pullout of troops in Afghanistan should move it up the list of priorities soon based on what’s happening in Iraq. Spending cuts to the military and national security apparatus will be way up the list as well. Also on the list: cybersecurity/NSA, the Iran nuclear deal (timing-wise, this could end up contending for early #1, depending on whether there’s a deal) and Russia sanctions.

Cully Stimson: The war against ISIS; FISA reform; Russian sanctions; and the DOD budget and need to re-evaluate the declining defense budget.

As the above responses suggest, there’s a wide range of views among our panelists–which should make for a fascinating and enlightening discussion tomorrow night. And if you can’t attend in person, not to fret; a live-stream of the event will be available here beginning a little before 5:30 p.m. (EDT). 

About the Author(s)

Steve Vladeck

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security and Professor of Law at the University of Texas School of Law. Follow him on Twitter (@steve_vladeck).