Why Democrats just can't win the terrorism argument
The public almost always sees Republicans as better able to protect the country from terrorism, no matter what's happening in the real world
In polls taken after the Dec. 2 shooting in San Bernardino, terrorism trumped the economy as the most pressing problem facing the country. President Obama's approval on the issue, meanwhile, plunged downward, reaching into the 30s. People have short attention spans, and if there isn't a terrorist attack for a while, they move on to caring about other things. But it must cause Democratic politicians — Obama himself, Hillary Clinton, and others — no end of frustration to know that no matter what they do or what they propose, on this issue, Republicans will almost always have the advantage.
Indeed, after the San Bernardino attack, Obama was criticized widely because his rhetoric wasn't enough of a mirror of the public's fear and anger. He was too calm and too rational. If only he had shouted a little more, the chattering class would have nodded their approval at his "leadership." And Republicans fell all over themselves to sound tough and strong. The only differences between the GOP presidential contenders were whether they wanted to "carpet-bomb" ISIS (Ted Cruz), kill the wives and children of terrorists (Donald Trump), or start torturing...well, somebody (most of the candidates).
Except for the occasional moment — Obama's election, the killing of Osama bin Laden — Republicans are almost always viewed by the public as better able to protect the country from terrorism, seemingly regardless of what's actually happening in the world or what they propose to do. Of course, it can be difficult to see when anti-terrorism policy is working, since by definition that means we don't notice and no longer have to think about the issue. But once the issue becomes salient — as happened after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks — there's nothing Democrats can say that will convince people not to gravitate toward the party that's grunting and snarling.
The fact that this is almost entirely about attitude is made clear by the question of how to confront ISIS. Putting aside the colorful rhetoric, the Republican presidential candidates who have tried to offer plans all propose to do almost exactly what President Obama is doing: an air campaign, work with our allies, get local forces to do most of the work on the ground. Some suggest a no-fly zone, which the administration opposes, but Hillary Clinton supports that too (and that would be aimed not at ISIS, which has no air force, but at Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, which is a separate problem). So you might find Obama's strategy inadequate, but if so, you can't say that the Republicans would be any better, unless you care only about posturing and not about substance.
Now let's turn our attention back home, and I'll say something that my conservative friends will find shocking: Barack Obama's record on keeping Americans safe from terrorism isn't just good, it's downright spectacular. You might not want to give him credit for it, and that's Okay. Maybe it would have happened anyway, regardless of the decisions he made. Maybe it's because of the efforts of the FBI, the NSA, and the Department of Homeland Security. Maybe it's because there are relatively few people actually willing and able to mount attacks within the United States. It could be a combination of all those things.
But imagine that right after September 11 — when everyone thought that Al Qaeda would soon be killing thousands more Americans, and who knows, maybe they'd blow up a city with a nuclear bomb — you told people that there would be a president elected in 2008, and over the first seven years of his presidency, the total number of Americans killed by jihadi terrorists would be not 100,000, not 1,000, not even 100, but 29. Or an average of about 4 per year, in a country of over 300 million souls. Most people would have said that that president must be some kind of anti-terror genius, who would unite all Americans in admiration and gratitude for his strength and resolve.
But that's not what happened. Obama doesn't get credit for the lack of terrorist attacks on his watch, in much the same way as George W. Bush doesn't get blame for the fact that 3,000 Americans were killed by terrorists while he was president. Bush did stand on some rubble and talk through a bullhorn, though. Perhaps he's the model that today's Republican presidential candidates want to emulate.