Paying homage to Republican national security officials and touting your allegiance to intelligence agencies might seem like an odd strategy to channel the enthusiasm of anti-Trump voters this election cycle but it’s the course chosen by a handful of CIA-operatives-turned-Democrats with decent odds to win House seats today. Foremost among them is Elissa Slotkin, a former ‘Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy’ in the Obama administration who is quick to point out that she also served dutifully under George W. Bush, and apparently assumes that will have electoral appeal among voters in Michigan’s 8th congressional district.
One particularly lurid television commercial of Slotkin’s features a photo of her smiling with Bush in the Oval Office, spliced alongside footage of the burning Pentagon on 9/11, with some B-roll of Iraq War battlefields thrown in for good measure. Presumably this imagery is intended to highlight her intimate involvement in post-9/11 foreign policy escapades, which has somehow morphed into a perceived political asset for certain Democratic candidates. Slotkin regularly briefed Bush about Iraq during the infamous ‘surge’ of 2007, when US casualties spiked and general chaos exploded. Rather than slink away in shame for her even tangential involvement in one of the worst episodes of modern US foreign policy, Slotkin has used this as a selling point for her highly desirable ‘experience.’
Her candidacy in some ways tests a version of center-left strategy that one would have thought had been extinguished in 2016 after Hillary Clinton tried it with disastrous results: that Democrats must tailor their appeals to the mythical moderate suburban Republican who is queasy about Trump and open to supporting Democrats, but only if they can demonstrate sufficient national security ‘gravitas.’ While these creatures are thought to exist, scant evidence supports such a supposition.
The political wager is that a baseline of Democrats are inordinately motivated to vote this cycle, and therefore catering to them with left-wing policy enticements is not electorally necessary. Slotkin has consequently run as a steadfastly centrist campaign relative to the median Democratic candidate, leading to a kind of stern cautiousness in her overall approach. For instance, she’s declined to even take a position on the Michigan ballot initiative to legalize marijuana, one of the most straightforwardly popular positions that could conceivably be taken among the demographic (young voters, minorities,) she most needs to turn out. The calculus doesn’t even particularly make sense from a pure strategic standpoint, so one has to assume that these are her genuine values.
‘I don’t believe in Canadian-style healthcare,’ Slotkin declared at one of her debates with incumbent GOP Rep. Mike Bishop. She has also repeatedly pledged not to back Nancy Pelosi for Speaker, as if this will assuage anyone who was already predisposed to resent the Democratic party’s ideological direction.
More notable than her insipid policy posturing is Slotkin’s record as a national security official, which is marred by extraordinary failure. She transitioned smoothly from providing George W. Bush advice on the Iraq War to promoting Obama-era efforts to disintegrate Syria. During one Senate hearing in 2014 at which she testified, Slotkin advocated for ‘training the vetted Syrian moderate opposition,’ a notion which four years later sounds like a sick punchline, and should have at the time for anyone who wasn’t immersed in the insular world of security state self-delusion.
The delusion has transferred over to present campaign strategy. Who are the Michigan voters who had reservations about Slotkin, but were won over by an op-ed from former Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley celebrating her illustrious CIA credentials? Who are the dormant Slotkin voters who were wrested from apathy by a supportive tweet from former CIA Director John Brennan?
If Slotkin pulls out a win today, and she well may, it won’t be because she succeeded in capturing the infinitesimally tiny number of Trump-skeptical conservatives who still exist in the wild. It will be because national Democrat-friendly trends were sufficient to override her blunders.