On the Hill

Back in the peaceful days of late summer, Democrats were finally getting around to something they'd neglected since Bill Clinton left office: foreign policy. In August, Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt each delivered addresses criticizing the Bush administration for its aversion to multilateralism and its obsession with missile defense. A few weeks later, Senator Joe Biden did the same at the National Press Club. Previewing Biden's speech that morning, the Los Angeles Times explained that congressional Democrats had begun a prolonged "assault on the Bush administration's defense and foreign policies." The date was September 10.

Needless to say, it all became moot the next day. Politically, the irony of September 11 is that in the short term, it takes foreign policy off the table as an issue. Democrats cannot easily criticize the president while the country is at war, and they probably should not. When he was informed on CNN last weekend that a new poll showed Bush with a 90 percent approval rating, Biden chirped: "Count me in the 90 percent." When Bush stepped down from the podium after his address to Congress last week, Daschle and Gephardt literally hugged him. 

But over the longer term, September 11 gives foreign policy a political centrality it has not had for a decade. And for Democrats, that is a serious problem. One of the reasons Daschle, Gephardt, and Biden felt compelled to deliver their weighty global-vision speeches, after all, was that the public doesn't trust the Democrats on foreign policy. Just last month, a Gallup poll showed that voters preferred Republicans by a 27-point margin on the issue--easily the biggest gap between the parties on any topic. And it's not hard to understand why: Few prominent Democrats have a reputation for foreign policy expertise. In the 1990s congressional Democrats generally ignored the GOP's advantage on national security. They assumed it didn't matter because Democrats enjoyed an edge on issues like health care and education that the public cared about more. Now, all of a sudden, it matters a great deal.

In the 1980s Democrats thought about foreign policy a lot. And for good reason: It was killing them. The party's perceived unwillingness to stand up to the Soviet Union helped sink three successive presidential candidates that decade. And so centrists, led by the Democratic Leadership Council, devoted themselves to shedding the party's post-Vietnam, dovish image. Ambitious congressional Democrats like Al Gore, Gary Hart, Chuck Robb, Sam Nunn, Les Aspin, and Lee Hamilton immersed themselves in the minutiae of throw weights, MIRVs, and deterrence theory. After Michael Dukakis's disastrously goofy tank ride in 1988, many party leaders assumed the next Democratic presidential candidate would have to be experienced and tough-minded on national security.

But then the Soviet Union disappeared, and the Democrats' vulnerability vanished with it. Bill Clinton was more hawkish than previous Democratic nominees, choosing Gore--one of the few Senate Democrats who voted for the Gulf war--as his running mate. And as president he supported military interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. But his passion was clearly for domestic policy, and the congressional party tended even more dramatically in that direction. Tom Daschle rose to minority (and now majority) leader with virtually no profile on foreign policy whatsoever. Gephardt almost always talked about foreign policy in terms of trade--a topic about as relevant to the current crisis as Medicare reform.

Today, the 1980s defense wonks--Nunn, Aspin, Gore, Robb--are gone from Congress, if not from politics altogether. And they have been replaced by a new generation of up-and-comers who assumed the way to get booked on "Meet the Press" was to bone up on HMO reform and oil drilling in Alaska.John Edwards, the Democrats' great Southern hope, has yet to sponsor significant defense or foreign policy legislation. Under the header "Supporting the Military," his website highlights his efforts to support men and women in uniform--by improving their health care. Evan Bayh, mentioned last year as a potential Gore running mate, hadn't given a floor speech this year on defense or foreign affairs prior to the attacks. As a candidate, Hillary Clinton's foreign policy amounted to pandering to Jewish voters over Israel. Like many Democrats, her discussions of the outside world revolved around domestic liberal priorities like "environmental, health and human rights issues, as well as security concerns," as The New York Times put it--reflecting Clinton's order of emphasis.

There's a structural reason for the congressional Democrats' low foreign policy profile: Most party leaders haven't sought assignments on key defense and foreign policy committees. Instead, they've flocked to committees with sway over Democrat-friendly issues (like Clinton on Health and Education) or, more recently, to those pitting them against the administration on high-profile issues (like Edwards on Judiciary). In the House, none of the three Democrats with the best shot at eventually succeeding Gephardt if he runs for president--California's Nancy Pelosi, Maryland's Steny Hoyer, and Texas's Martin Frost--sit on either the House Armed Services or the International Relations Committees. (Pelosi, Edwards, and Bayh all serve on their chambers' Intelligence Committees; but Intelligence is a low-key and secretive panel--not an ideal perch for building foreign policy influence.) And to the extent House Democrats have cut a recognizable profile on security issues, it has been as critics of military spending--which is precisely the reputation you don't want right now. "Not many have a strong point of view, not many voted for the Gulf war," says a leading party strategist. "It's almost cultural."

And what's true of individual members is true of the party bureaucracy as well. A 16-page "Families First" agenda that party leaders promoted last year makes no mention of foreign affairs or defense. Earlier this year Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe made some pro-military Democrats blanch over his solidarity with Puerto Rican opponents of Navy bombing exercises on Vieques. ("We do not want to be seen as antimilitary," protested Texas Democrat Solomon Ortiz in The New York Times.) And, incredibly, the DNC's website--which includes briefings on Asian-Pacific Americans, breast cancer, and the National Endowment for the Arts--has just one position paper on foreign policy or defense, and it's on "Nato Enlargement." Admits one Democratic strategist, "It's been an enormous problem for us."

Perhaps recognizing that, congressional Democrats have begun enlisting outside help. Former Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger says he speaks often to party leaders like Daschle and Gephardt on an informal basis. Other Clinton national security wonks have even talked of organizing a more formal policy shop. But for the time being, the party has to rely on the few high-profile members who already know where Tajikistan is. There are basically four: Carl Levin, the bookish and cranky chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Biden, the garrulous chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who has made occasional headlines on issues like international finance scandals; and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, one of just four remaining Senate Democrats who voted to use force against Iraq in 1991.The good news is that three of these men are running for president. Throw in Gore, and for the first time since the cold war, the race for the Democratic nomination might feature a serious debate over foreign policy. The bad news is that if the GOP retains a 27-point edge on the issue, that nomination may be barely worth having.

This article originally ran in the October 8, 2001, issue of the magazine.