correction: An earlier version of this column stated that national security was not on the agenda at the Center for American Progress' annual ideas conference. There was one panel on the topic featuring Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) and former White House chief of staff Denis McDonough.
Last week, President Trump abruptly pulled out of the planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a bizarre letter that ominously warned of America’s “massive and powerful” nuclear capabilities. (As of this writing, it appears the summit may still take place.) This came on the heels of Trump’s senseless decision to rip up the Iran nuclear deal, increasing the probability of another war in the Middle East. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is seeking congressional approval for a new “low-yield” nuclear warhead, a Strangelovian euphemism for a weapon roughly as powerful as the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
So much for that Nobel Peace Prize.
In a sane world, Trump’s escalation of nuclear dangers would provoke a much louder outcry, especially from Democratic politicians who have taken up the mantle of resistance to the president. But Democrats, with a few notable exceptions, haven’t offered alternatives to Trump’s calamitous, con-man foreign policy. While there are a number of explanations for the party’s response, perhaps a central part of the problem is that, with less than six months until the midterms, Democrats still don’t have a coherent message on national security. Without control of the White House or Congress, the moment is ripe for Democrats to rethink the failed establishment approach that has guided the party for too long.
Since the 2016 election, progressives have successfully pushed Democrats to the left on several key issues. Medicare for All, tuition-free college and a $15 minimum wage have become virtually mainstream positions. Yet there has not been a parallel shift in the debate over national security. To the contrary, hawkish Democrats seem almost emboldened. In the Senate, six Democrats, apparently without fear of consequence, sided with Republicans to confirm CIA Director Gina Haspel despite her disgraceful role in George W. Bush-era torture. Leading Democrats are co-sponsoring an Authorization for the Use of Military Force that peace activists say would give Trump a “blank check for war.” Last week, 131 House Democrats voted to increase defense spending for the second consecutive year under Trump, showing how little has changed since Democrats went along with Bush’s request for higher defense spending late in his term.
As a party, Democrats historically are fearful of being perceived as weak on national security. In today’s political environment, however, their failure to advance a bold progressive alternative to Trump’s belligerent policies and bloated defense budgets is a huge missed opportunity. Americans from across the political spectrum are clearly hungry for a new course. Those who claim otherwise need only consider the debate in 2016, when Trump strained (and lied) to present himself as an opponent of America’s endless wars. Indeed, as I’ve written before, three successive presidential elections have been won by the candidate viewed (accurately or not) as the most skeptical of military intervention.
Recent polling bolsters the case for a new, robust progressive vision. A survey conducted in February by Public Policy Polling found that voters prefer investing in domestic programs over military ones, that the war on terrorism has failed and that the United States should cut spending, not increase it, on nuclear weapons. “Democrats do not need to continue as Republicans-lite on defense,” Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione and former Sierra Club Foundation president Guy T. Saperstein write in the Nation. “They can stand up for tough, realistic national-security policies that protect America while cutting excessive spending and excessive weapons. By doing so, they will gain, not lose, voters.”
To be sure, some Democrats are working to spark a debate on these issues. For years, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has offered an alternative budget proposal that would reduce unnecessary defense spending. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) has been a staunch opponent of regime change, while Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has been vocal about the need for a new progressive foreign policy, laying out a series of core principles. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) have called on Congress to reassert its war powers. Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) have introduced legislation to prohibit a nuclear first strike without a congressional declaration of war. And in a powerful speech at Westminster College last September, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recalled President Eisenhower’s declaration that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
But it is long past time for Democratic leaders to take that common-sense message to heart — and to voters across the country. After all, how will the party deliver on its promises on health care, education or infrastructure with the military-industrial complex siphoning off such a disproportionate share of the federal budget? As they work to advance a more progressive vision for the country, it’s crucial that, on national security, Democrats give voters a real alternative to endless war.