By Erin P. Billings
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has assembled a kitchen cabinet of fellow moderate Members to shape the Democratic strategy on national security issues and battle perceptions that the party is weak on defense.
Today the group, which includes 14 Members who sit on key committees, will lay out a multitiered Democratic “national security strategy,” designed to provide a broad-reaching message and policy vision they hope the party, candidates and their colleagues will embrace.
“I thought it was important to get together a group of Democrats, particularly those involved in defense and security issues, to articulate a vision for our party on national security issues,” Hoyer said.
“We want to make sure Americans know that we are absolutely committed and believe it is our responsibility to keep our country safe and our people safe.”
As part of that, the group will outline Democratic ideas for winning the war in Iraq, defeating terrorism at home and abroad, preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction, strengthening the U.S. military and intelligence capabilities, improving global alliances, bolstering post-conflict reconstruction capabilities and reforming the United Nations.
They also will lay out plans to develop a strategy for energy independence and to overcome record debt and deficits to ensure the country is fiscally sound and prepared for national security challenges.
“I think this will be another contribution to convincing the American people that Democrats are the party they can trust to keep our nation safe and free,” Hoyer said. “We want to contribute to the confidence of the American people that the Democratic Party understands that responsibility just as we have exercised that responsibility.”
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), ranking member on the Intelligence Committee and part of the Hoyer effort, said Democrats have a long-standing tradition of leading visionaries on protecting the homeland, and today’s document is a reminder of that. She called it the “beginning of a complete presentation” on the major issues affecting homeland security and defense.
“It’s important to do in policy terms,” she said. “The positions are the right positions for the country.”
The rollout of the defense blueprint by Hoyer and his team comes just as some of the Caucus’ left-leaning Democrats are becoming ever more vocal about their opposition to the war in Iraq and heightening their call to bring U.S. forces home. Some of those Members will participate in an ad hoc hearing today to discuss ways to end the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. A coalition of liberal groups, meanwhile, will hold a major rally advocating troop withdrawal just across town.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who advised Hoyer and his group in the drafting of their vision document, said in an interview that the Hoyer blueprint should be “viewed as part of the broad debate within the party” and shows that there are “a lot of Democrats who are serious about national security issues and are aware that the country has a lot of citizens” who are similarly concerned about those issues.
The challenge, O’Hanlon said, lies in whether the party will raise its own awareness on these matters heading into future elections, and whether it can communicate such a political vision in a news environment now focused on Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq.
But O’Hanlon said Democrats still have time to make headway: “It’s never too late. It’s American politics. There is always a need for both parties to take every issue seriously.”
Hoyer assembled his team of Members in March after a November election that turned in part on Democrats’ inability to convince voters that they will keep the country safe. Many argued then that Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry (D-Mass.) could have won the White House had he shown more strength on those matters.
The No. 2 House Democrat, a moderate who supported U.S. involvement in Iraq, said he believes Democrats lost the “national election because of national security” and because of a “lack of confidence of the American public.” He added that many voters had doubts that Kerry and the Democrats were committed to defeating terrorism.
With that in mind, other Congressional Democratic leaders, in a separate effort, have been trying to improve their communications effort and bolster their national security portfolio. Earlier this year, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) asked former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Perry to lead a blue-ribbon panel of experts to advise the party on defense and national security policies.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who serves on International Relations and is part of Hoyer’s informal kitchen cabinet, said House Democratic Members are making a long-term commitment to reversing the perceptions, and hope to “generate broad support within the party” for their ideas.
“People equate national security with their own personal security,” Schiff said. “This is not an abstract idea. In order for the American people to support one party over the other, they need to feel that their basic need to the protect the country will be met.”
“Democrats have much stronger ideas about how to protect the country, and how to better protect the country,” he added. “We just have to do a better job of getting the message out.”
In addition to Schiff, other prominent Democrats make up Hoyer’s cabinet, including Harman and Reps. Ike Skelton (Mo.), ranking member on Armed Services, John Spratt (S.C.), ranking member on the Budget Committee and senior member on Armed Services, and Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), also an Armed Services member.
Also in the group are Democratic Reps. Chet Edwards (Texas), Dennis Cardoza (Calif.), Jim Cooper (Tenn.), Norm Dicks (Wash.), Howard Berman (Calif.), Solomon Ortiz (Texas), Silvestre Reyes (Texas) and Robert Andrews (N.J.).