With the start of the new congressional session, the Democratic exile has officially ended. So begins the hard part: governing. Over the past few years, many commentators have criticized the party s failure to put forward a coherent vision for national security. Now with control in the House and Senate, Democrats have an opportunity to show the American people how they will lead in a post-9/11 world. There are two national security temptations for Democrats in the new congress: a reflexively anti-President George W. Bush approach, and a reflexively strong approach – trying to out-tough the Republicans on security. Both must be rejected. Though based on political calculations, they are, in fact, bad politics. Neither is driven by an overarching set of principles, leaving Democrats looking like they stand for nothing. According to supporters of the first approach, November s victory was a mandate for opposing the Bush agenda blow-for-blow. Thus, Democrats should respond with a strategy that is the antithesis of neoconservatism – redeploying from Iraq, limiting American activism in the world and adopting a more realist foreign policy outlook. However, these Democrats have come to support a mishmash of policies that could hardly be described as liberal. A reflexively anti-Bush Democrat might oppose democracy promotion in the Middle East, arguing that that s what neoconservatives do. Others may claim that the internal politics of faraway nations should not be of concern to progressives – that the United States has enough problems at home to worry about. But it is precisely because we are progressives that we care about poverty and oppression abroad. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once noted, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. The second temptation – to prove Democratic toughness on national security – is based on the interpretation that November s election win was more a response to Republican failures than a vote of confidence in Democrats. The public still does not trust liberals to keep them safe, and so the Democratic Party must promote only what will be perceived as strong national security positions, taking on Republicans from the right, and avoiding soft issues such as civil liberties. Like the first tendency, this leaves Democrats with something that is neither a comprehensive strategy, nor recognizably liberal. Fear-mongering nativism, such as that displayed by certain congressional campaigns that ran against amnesty for illegal immigrants, or by the many Democrats who made political hay out of the Dubai-ports deal, is not the legacy the party should be striving for. Neither is silence on the Bush administration s use of torture. If progressives don t feel confident enough to vigorously oppose something as self-evidently illiberal as torture, then why do we want to lead? It is not yet clear where the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate will stand on foreign policy. The danger is that Democrats will stay vague and try to have it both ways. The national security plan congressional Democrats released last spring, titled Real Security, and the more recent New Direction for America include a lot of posturing about being tough and smart but little in the way of original ideas or overarching strategy. The message seemed to be: Don t worry, we can be just as strong as Republicans, which isn t exactly a rousing call-to-arms. Today, Democrats finally have the chance to prove to the public that they stand for a principled approach to national security. To do this, they will have to overcome the Republican-reinforced perception of poll-tested policymaking. Senator John Kerry, remember, was dogged by accusations that he polled everything from Iraq to convention choreography, when he was the Democratic candidate for president in 2004. True or not, he never could dispel the belief that his positions were based on political expediency. In this spirit, we propose a one-year moratorium on foreign policy polling. It s time to give up the obsession with focus groups. Instead, Democrats should test their policy ideas against something far more important: their values and beliefs, and offer bold ideas and solutions that are right for the US, regardless of whether or not these are popular. Only when Americans believe that Democrats are sincere – rather than merely strong – will they trust the party with their safety and security. A gut-check should come before a poll-check. If de-emphasizing the military component is the way to prevail in the fight against terrorism, then Democrats must say so without hesitation. If democracy promotion abroad means engaging with (nonviolent) Islamists, then let s say it. The party s position on torture and civil liberties should be one of moral clarity, irrespective of what the polls say. Democrats must go on the offensive, take their case to the American people and demonstrate that their vision is not only smarter but intimately tied to US founding ideals. Losers are usually the self-critical ones. Winners must be, too. Before 2008, Democrats must have a thoughtful discussion not only on policy positions but also on the values, beliefs and hopes which animate them. It is time to put the polls away and stop worrying how people perceive the Democrats every word. As the new congressional session begins, it s time not to stand tough or stand tall, but, rather, to stand principled.
Shadi Hamid and Marc Grinberg are principals of the Truman National Security Project. This commentary first appeared at tompaine.com, an online American public affairs journal of progressive analysis and commentary.