Bayh: Democrats Can't Be Soft on Security

For a Democratic presidential candidate to be successful next year, says Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, he must be perceived as “a credible commander-in- chief” and the party itself must “change its perception of being inadequate on security issues.”

In an interview, Bayh, chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, told me that the image of the Democrats as soft on defense is “a potential pitfall to our party.”

Bayh’s warning follows release of a survey by Democratic pollster Mark Penn that indicates President Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism has given Republicans a major advantage on the question of which party voters trust to handle national security. According to the survey, voters say the most critical issues are education, the economy, and the war on terrorism. The war on terrorism, Penn concluded, has reached the same level of importance with women as education, the economy, and the environment.

Penn’s Poll

Penn’s poll gave Republicans a 35-point advantage over Democrats in handling national security generally, a 33-point advantage in handling homeland security, and a 28-point advantage in handling the war on terrorism. It found that voters believe the Democratic Party is too liberal (55% agree), does not reflect “my” values (54% agree), and is out of touch with mainstream America (54% agree).

“If Democrats can’t close the security gap, then they can’t be competitive in the next election,” concluded Penn, who polled for President Clinton and is now polling for the presidential bid of Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Bayh told HUMAN EVENTS he agrees with this unhappy prognosis. But, he added quickly, “I don’t think it has to be that way.” He cited “the long history of our party on national security, from Thomas Jefferson fighting the Barbary Pirates, the major terrorists of his day, to Woodrow Wilson and FDR leading America in two world wars to make the world safe for democracy, to Harry Truman drawing the line in the sand against Communism, to John Kennedy summoning us to oppose any enemy for the cause of world freedom. It’s only been since Vietnam that the Democratic Party has been seen as inadequate on defense issues.”

How can Democrats change this perception? “By recognizing the threats we face in the world,” said Bayh. “The world was changed by 9/11 and the threat we face is from suicidal terrorists who are perfectly happy to die as they take some of us with them and [from] weapons of mass death.” The Democrats, he said, need to offer a candidate who is “seen credibly as a commander-in-chief and particularly as strong on the issues of defending our country and promoting freedom abroad.”

Bayh supported the war in Iraq. “Our action in Iraq was militarily brilliant,” he said, “but the planning for the aftermath has been woefully inadequate. And that’s not a partisan statement. [Republican Senators] Dick Lugar [of Indiana] and Chuck Hagel [of Nebraska] have said as much.”

Would Democrats be conceding the election if they nominated an anti-war candidate such as retired Gen. Wesley Clark or former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean? “[That stand] would give them additional explaining to do and would be an additional hurdle for the Democrats in ’04,” said Bayh, who has not endorsed a candidate. “I have several friends in there [campaigning],” he said.