Fifteen Democratic members of the House of Representatives have produced a document and a strategy they hope will convince substantial numbers of voters who don't trust them on national security to begin trusting them again.
Led by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, "Ensuring America's Strength and Security: A Democratic National Security Strategy for the 21st Century" is an attempt by at least some Democrats to reclaim this issue from Republicans and return the Democratic Party to majority status.
Hoyer, a liberal who voted for the Patriot Act, tells me that during the presidency of Bill Clinton, "We didn't do enough to fight terrorism." But he praises Clinton for deposing former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from his genocidal power without many American casualties (that was because Clinton mostly employed high-flying bombers instead of ground troops). He also calls the United Nations "feckless."
Hoyer adds, "We got it." What did he get? "If we don't convince people we are capable of defending the country, we'll never get to other issues."
A Republican might conclude this is merely a repositioning of the party so it can get back to its big-government, big-spending ways on other things and maybe it is. But Democrats have not always been the party of peace-at-any-price and never seeing a war or an idea for which they would fight. Vietnam and President Lyndon Johnson changed the party's direction on foreign policy, radically jerking it leftward.
The late Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington was a leading congressional Democrat known for putting his country and its best interests ahead of partisan politics. While much of the rest of his party embraced liberalism during and after the Vietnam War and favored negotiation instead of confrontation with the Soviet Union, Jackson clung to the belief that communism is inherently evil and should be opposed and ultimately defeated by American power.
Democrats may not yet be born again Jacksonians, but this line from the Hoyer document indicates they may finally be getting around to understanding their primary problem with the national security issue: "We must use every tool at our disposal - including military force - to capture, kill or disrupt international terrorists who are intent on attacking our homeland and our citizens, as well as our interests in other parts of the world."
What about the Iraq war, about which Democrats have been mostly critical since the Bush Administration deposed Saddam Hussein? The Hoyer document says, "We must win the war in Iraq, and will do what it takes to achieve victory there." And to address present and future threats, the 15 House Democrats propose "an increase : of 100,000 troops, along with enhancements to recruiting and retention."
Several proposals should appeal to some voters beyond the Democrat base. They include "adopting a risk-based formula for disbursing homeland security funding" and "enacting a comprehensive border protection plan that prevents terrorists from entering our country."
Democrats have indicated they might make illegal immigration a major issue in the next two campaigns because they see the Bush Administration's vulnerability on it. Whether they will risk offending the Hispanic voter base they - and Republicans - have tried to attract by doing more to reduce illegal immigration remains to be seen.
The statement also calls for a "New Manhattan Project" to speed up breakthroughs in hydrogen fuel, composite materials and nanotechnology to make automobiles lighter, stronger and more fuel efficient. If portrayed as a way to free ourselves from the clutches of the oil-producing nations that hate us, this issue could work well for Democrats.
Possibly the least credible position is the document's assault on what it calls the "fiscal recklessness" of the Bush Administration. While the administration can be faulted for not reining in the cost and growth of big government, Democrats gain no political points on this issue since they have long been the party of more programs, more spending and higher taxes.
Still, the Hoyer document is a good start for Democrats. If they are serious, the devilish details should follow. If they are really serious, they may give Republicans something to worry about in the 2006 congressional races and especially in the 2008 presidential contest.
- Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.