JFK knew he had an election-winning issue.
The Democratic presidential candidate understood he couldn't triumph unless he made the case that his White House would be tougher on communism than his opponent's.
It would take some doing. After all, it was his party that had been riddled with communists in the 1930s. A Democrat had occupied the Oval Office when the U.S. "lost" China to Moscow. A Democratic president had almost lost the first "hot" war of the Cold War.
But Kennedy had an issue he could campaign on. During President Eisenhower's watch, the Soviets had caught up with the United States as a nuclear power. JFK vowed to close the "missile gap" -- the difference in the number of nukes each side could fling at the other -- that favored Moscow.
The missile gap helped propel John Fitzgerald Kennedy to the White House. Only after he received detailed intelligence reports did he learn that the gap ran the other way. The U.S. nuclear arsenal was bigger and more capable than the Soviets'. Oops.
It is hard for presidential challengers to compete competently on national security issues. They don't have the CIA and every other three-lettered intelligence agency at hand for briefings. Consequently, they don't have access to critical information.
Even so, challengers must address defense issues as best they can. This year, Mitt Romney will have to discuss Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and other global hot spots.
Yet, what can he really say? January is a long way off. World events don't stop while the U.S. has an election. What is really important is the decisions he makes on the job -- and we won't even know what those critical imminent decisions are until then.
During an election campaign, what matters more than where presidential candidates come down on current events is their fundamental approach to what kind of national security and foreign policy president they are going to be.
For this campaign, that issue is already settled. Romney's approach to providing for the common defense differs as sharply from the Obama Doctrine as Adele's music does from Lady Gaga's.
What a change from four years ago. Then it was unclear what kind of president candidate Obama would be. On many national security issues it was hard to tell him apart from the Republican candidate. Both promised to finish the job in Iraq and Afghanistan, fight terrorism, and build missile defenses. Even after he was elected, many called Obama's national security "Bush-lite."
But with nearly a full term under his belt, President Obama is clearly his own man when it comes to national security. He has carved out a distinctive agenda all his own.
This president wants to pursue an aggressive arms control agenda, diminish the U.S. nuclear arsenal and take a minimalist approach to missile defense. Obama believes he can use skillful diplomacy, international institutions and treaties to plug the security gap inevitably created by the draconian cuts he intends to make in U.S. military forces. He plans to win the war on terror by whacking a few terrorist leaders from afar. And he is confident that he can somehow manage the fallout from the chaotic Arab Spring as well as relations with a dangerous North Korea, an aggressive Iran, a rising China and a restive Russia -- all at the same time.
Today, America has not faced such a stark choice in the fundamentals of how to manage foreign policy since Carter and Reagan.
Absent any foreign policy headlines, neither Romney nor Obama will likely spend much time debating national security. They will fight for the presidency over the future of the economy.
That's probably just as well, because it would be a boring debate. On the fundamentals of security policy, they appear to disagree on just about everything.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.