The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The big 2020 issue Democrats are ignoring

President Trump with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12. (Kevin Lim/Associated Press)

Dan Schwerin was director of speechwriting during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and previously served on the policy planning staff at the State Department.

It is too early to say whether President Trump’s summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un will lead to any real progress toward disarmament, but it did deliver the flag-draped images and wall-to-wall coverage that both men craved. This should be a warning to Democrats considering a presidential run in 2020. Trump will do everything he can to create a commander in chief gap with his opponent, who will be portrayed as the second coming of Michael Dukakis in a tank.

Right now, Democrats are focused almost exclusively on domestic policy, and that makes sense for candidates running for Congress. It is also good politics for potential 2020 candidates to keep rolling out bold policies such as a federal jobs guarantee or health care for all, ideas that can galvanize voters even if they don’t stand much chance of becoming law anytime soon.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office posted a photo from the Group of Seven meeting in Quebec City on June 9. It quickly went viral. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

But when Americans pick a president, they also look for a strong leader who will keep the country safe. Aside from former vice president Joe Biden, none of the likely Democratic candidates have significant national-security chops. Like Barack Obama in 2008, they’ll have to prove that their values, ideas and judgment make up for a lack of experience.

On North Korea, Democrats should support continued diplomacy and avoid the trap of rooting for failure. But they should warn voters that the president may be getting fleeced by Kim. Canceling joint military exercises with South Korea without getting substantive concessions from Pyongyang in return was bad enough. It would be a disaster if Trump follows through on his desire to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea — especially if he does so without first securing complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.

More broadly, Democratic candidates should offer a new vision of American leadership for a post-Trump world, and they should do so without falling back on jargon such as “the liberal rules-based order,” which means nothing to voters. They need to be as bold in foreign policy as they are on the home-front.

First, Democrats should offer a strategy to push back against Russia and China, both of which are taking advantage of receding U.S. leadership to seize greater influence around the world. Trump has proved uniquely weak when it comes to Russia and reckless with China, so Democrats should fill the vacuum by explaining how they would defend democracy and protect American interests without stumbling into global conflict. One place to start would be to articulate clearer consequences for cyberattacks on our key infrastructure, including election systems. We have no effective deterrent against cyberwarfare like we do against nuclear or conventional attacks. Moscow needs to know that next time, there will be more than a slap on the wrist.

Second, 2020 candidates should make the case for rebuilding America’s tattered alliances. As Trump showed with his temper tantrum at the Group of Seven gathering in Canada, he views NATO and our other alliances as protection rackets to be used to extort tribute from weaker nations. Democrats must convince voters that these relationships keep America safe and strong, but also emphasize how they’ll make sure our partners carry their share of the burdens. Pledging to double the size of Foreign Service would send a clear message that we’re back in the diplomacy business.

Third, with Trump tearing up the Iran nuclear agreement, and talk of war in the Middle East heating up, Democratic candidates should be prepared to answer the difficult question of when and how to intervene abroad. The United States tried massive military intervention in Iraq, modest intervention in Libya and minimal intervention in Syria — all of which ended badly. To prevent more disasters and ensure that future interventions reflect broad national consensus, Democrats should call for updating both the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force and the War Powers Act. A “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons would also make sense.

Finally, there’s trade. In recent decades, Democrats have embraced a bipartisan approach to international economics that offered strategic benefits, but proved too disconnected from the needs of the American middle class. On the other hand, Trump has shown the dangers of protectionism, with a looming trade war threatening jobs and prices at home.

Democratic candidates should offer a different approach that keeps the United States engaged with the world while prioritizing American workers over multinational corporations. For example, Democrats could pledge to shut down all major tax havens around the world, which shelter both corporate cash and criminal enterprises, costing the United States nearly $70 billion a year in lost revenue. Closing them would require sanctions and arm-twisting, just as we’ve done with Iran and North Korea, but it would make the global economy more fair and more transparent.

There are other pressing issues to consider, from terrorism to climate change, butmore important than any specific policy challenge will be convincing voters that a Democratic candidate will be a strong commander in chief. Now is the time to start thinking about how to do that.

Read more:

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Dana Milbank: Hey, Democrats! What’s the big idea?

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Democrats aren’t as obsessed with Trump as you think

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Democrats are missing the opportunity to offer an alternative to endless war