The Democratic National Convention is swinging in Charlotte, and so is the revolving door of once-and-future Pentagon officials working the re-election campaign for President Obama.
In their minds, it's no accident that for the first time in almost anyone's memory Democrats are out-polling
Republicans on national security. The 2004 election left Democrats flabbergasted how their candidate, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was unable to sell a better national security vision at a time when Afghanistan was forgotten, Iraq was falling to pieces and the incumbent, George W. Bush, was widely unpopular. From that experience liberals organized themselves to figure out how to counter the long-standing Republican advantage with voters on national security.
What's happening today -- Obama is consistently beating Romney on the question of who they prefer as commander-in-chief -- is the fruit of that labor, they feel.
"That's the first time, really, in almost a generation that a Democrat has been preferred over a Republican," said Douglas Wilson, co-chair of the campaign's defense working group and former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs under Obama.
Wilson, who retired from his Pentagon post last year, said that is in part a function of the consistent message coming from Democrats. The cohesion in Obama's foreign policy team, both in the administration and campaign, is evident in the lack of news stories pointing out any insider rifts, he said. Compare that to the mounting stories of neocon vs. realist battles for the soul of Romney's national security mantle.
"The Obama team has been a very coherent group of people," Wilson told the E-Ring
. "This has been the most unified and coherent and integrated national security team of people I have ever seen. And that, I think, is one of reasons that you're finding that the message is pretty consistent out of the Democrats."
The Obama campaign's national security advisory team is led by two of the Pentagon's most visible former officials, Michele Flournoy and Colin Kahl. Flournoy is co-founder of the Center for a New American Security, a virtual farm team for DOD officials in Obama's first years, and became his undersecretary of defense, the Pentagon's top policy official. Kahl was deputy assistant secretary for the Middle East, making him a frequent traveler with reporters heading into Iraq with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Both helped craft Obama's foreign policy message before they entered government, and now they are among a larger group unabashedly stumping for Obama in Charlotte.
"There's no question that we've been out there," Wilson said.
Wilson is a former executive vice president of the Howard Gilman Foundation, where he ran its domestic and international policy programs at White Oak
, a conference center north of Jacksonville, Fla., that hosts policy and leadership retreats. Wilson credited an initiative at White Oak, in cooperation with the National Security Network, which over the course of several years brought "next generation Democrats" together to workshop "all kinds of issues: Asia, Europe, China, Russia -- and what you ended up having was a process that really ended up building a team of people. They knew each other before they got into office."
Other birthing grounds included the Truman Project, founded in 2004, which helps train service members eager to get into foreign policy, and Third Way. founded in 2005. Kahl's successor at DOD is Matt Spence, a co-founder of the Truman National Security Project.
Others stumping in Charlotte include Rachel Kleinfeld, Truman's founding president and CEO; Mieke Eoyang, director of Third Way's National Security Program; Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network.
Together they are at the core of a center-left movement of Democrats unafraid of military power, spreading U.S. global influence, and striving to buck soft-of-defense characterizations that killed liberals in presidential elections for so long. The groups have become messaging machines, joining or zooming past the ranks of Washington think tanks considered influential to defense policymakers.
Indeed, they feed government. The Next Generation Project roster
still counts in-the-building names like Vikram Singh,
now deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia
By now, the Democrats enjoying their advantage in some part, Wilson argued, because they "have boiled it down to ‘tough but smart'." That's the slogan for this commander-in-chief they're offering.
"This is a president who shown he has a spine but he's not stupid," Wilson said he tells people, in his speeches. "And there's a difference between standing up for the country and beating your chest and running off a cliff."
That's message has resonated with voters, he argued, because "after 10 years on the battlefield, American voters understand that."