Centrist Democrats Urge Party Policy With Muscle

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Democratic hawks said yesterday that their party can win a war of ideas with the Republicans over national security, but only if Democrats move beyond simply criticizing President Bush's policies and convince voters they support strategies to defeat Islamic jihadists.

These centrist Democrats argued that voters are more receptive to the Democrats because of Bush's mistakes in Iraq. But they warned against calls to launch investigations into past administration decisions if Democrats gain control of the House or Senate in the November elections. Instead, they said, Democrats should concentrate on charting alternative policies for fighting terrorism and succeeding in Iraq.

"We still have a hurdle to cross with the American people in convincing them we can be both tough and smart when it comes to securing America," said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). Voters may have more confidence in Democrats on the economy or education, he said, but, "they're not going to trust us on those things if they don't first us trust us with their lives."

Bayh and others spoke at the launch of a collection of essays on national security policy published by the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank associated with the Democratic Leadership Council. The sponsors challenged Democrats to resist policies advocated by what they called the "non-interventionist left" wing of their party while vigorously challenging what they call the "neo-imperial right" viewpoint of many in the Bush administration.

Yesterday's unveiling underscored again the division within the Democratic Party between elected officials such as Bayh, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who have resisted calls for setting timetables for withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq, and those such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.) and Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), who have embraced such timetables.

Yesterday's speakers said Democrats must make clear that, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they do not take lightly the threat posed by Islamic radicals. Even as they challenged their own party to offer a more robust strategy, they rejected Republican criticism -- voiced earlier this year by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove -- that Democrats collectively have a "pre-9/11 worldview." Rove said Democrats have been "deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong" on national security.

Bayh said Republicans have been "better at national security politics than at national security." Former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner (D), noting that he was elected just two months after the attacks, said he and other Democrats are keenly aware of the new threats. "I don't need to be lectured by Karl Rove and the record of this administration about what is needed to keep America safe," Warner said.

Despite these indignant words, Democratic centrists remain sharply at odds with most voices on the party's left, whose opposition to the Iraq war has fueled calls for party leaders to offer more vigorous resistance to the president.

Pelosi has said Democrats will investigate how the United States went to war in Iraq if they gain control of the House, but pollster Jeremy Rosner said yesterday that this represents a backward-looking approach that will make it more difficult for Democrats to define their security agenda.

"Many of us are disturbed by the calls for investigations or even impeachment as the defining vision for our party for what we would do if we get back into office," he said.

PPI President Will Marshall said that Democrats should embrace internationalism in the tradition of Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy. That includes championing freedom and democracy. "We can't abandon [support for] democracy simply because the Bush administration has embraced it or misappropriated it," he said.

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