By Philip Dine
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
WASHINGTON Decades ago, Democrats with names like Kennedy and Roosevelt and Truman were known for their tough-minded views on military and foreign policy and their ability to lead the nation in times of conflict.
Seeking to return to that public perception of their party, senior House Democrats have put together a national security strategy.
Given the “enormous strain” on military forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and now on the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, said one key is to strengthen partnerships with other countries.
Skelton announced the party’s initiative late last week along with Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.; Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., ranking member of the House Budget Committee; and other legislators.
“Protecting America, in war and in peace, has been a bedrock principle of the Democratic Party for at least a century,” said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. “It’s time to reclaim that tradition.”
The purpose seems threefold:
-To make Democratic views on security a vital part of a debate thus far dominated by the GOP.
-To help the party at the ballot box by reassuring voters that Democrats will protect the country.
-To take advantage of growing public concerns over President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq war and the administration’s war on terrorism.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., says troops are “overstretched, overcommitted and in desperate need of relief.”
The Democrats also called for stepped-up efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation, as well as improvements on intelligence, homeland security, energy independence and the diplomatic effort to combat anti-Americanism abroad.
Changing the public view won’t be easy, contended Carl Forti, chief spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The leaders of the Democratic Party have an abysmal record when it comes to national security,” Forti said. “As long as you have Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean out there as the
face of your party pushing their liberal agenda, that’s what people are going to hear and listen to.”
Hoyer said the party would soon offer more specifics. He acknowledged that polls show “the American public is not convinced” that Democrats would do a good job defending the country, which he termed “the threshold issue for voters in our last national election.”
“I think the American public will be in a more receptive mood because people do not think the administration’s policies are working,” he said.
Harman stressed the “sensible, centrist” nature of the plan. “We’re tough enough to pull the trigger, and we’re smart enough to hit the target,” she said.
Michael O’Hanlon, military expert at the Brookings Institution, called the effort “politically wise; in fact it’s politically essential.”
“The question is, does it do enough? It’s just a first step.”