Democrats Divided on National Security

Working under the common wisdom that they lost ground in the last two election cycles due to a Republican advantage on national security, congressional Democrats have laid out a strategy and a legislative agenda to change this trend. However, the party has been thwarted recently by its own disunity and GOP efforts to retake control of the issue.

Fractured in Rhetoric

Due to a gaping lack of support for popular security initiatives such as the Patriot Act and the National Security Agency’s terrorist surveillance program, the strategy of the minority party appears to be focused on simply portraying itself as a stronger and more sensible than President Bush and the Republicans.

The first task at hand in pursuit of this goal is to present a cohesive agenda, dubbed the Real Security Act of 2006, in order to come across as a viable alternative. In accordance with this plan—conspicuously titled to imply that Republicans have been providing false security—prominent Democrats have held several press conferences on Capitol Hill in recent weeks to showcase this new security posture. However, in spite of claims to the contrary, Democrats remain fractured and their message muddled.

Powerful Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark cited Bush’s invasion of Iraq as a failure on September 5. Clark went so far as to call it a “strategic blunder.” Furthermore, the majority of the lawmakers at the event agreed that Iran was a larger security threat in March of 2003, when Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq.

However, another prominent lawmaker at the event, Sen. Tom Carper (D.-Del.), told me that in 2003 he considered Iraq a larger security threat than even Iran, due to Iran’s “friendly administration” at the time.

As further evidence that the Democrats remain fragmented on many matters of security, Rep. Brad Sherman (D.-Calif.), speaking at an event protesting the U.S. visit of former Iranian leader Mohammad Khatami, went so far as to call Carper “nuts,” due to his assessment of Iran’s regime in 2003. To illustrate his point, he was flanked by numerous Iranian dissidents, who held pictures of torture and murder committed under Khatami’s rule—one showing a woman being buried alive. Khatami’s rule also saw heavy financial and political support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. “If we abide by the Koran,” said Khatami in 2005, “we should all be mobilized to kill.”

Impotent on Policy

When asked to put forth concrete legislative goals that run counter to or separate from the Republican platform, Democrats have touted several proposals, including a call to further secure the nation’s port security.

Last Thursday, however, the would-be political wedge issue—an important part of the Democrats’ marquee Real Security Act—was neutralized by Senate Republican leaders, who scored a significant victory with the unanimous passage of the Port Security Improvement Act.

Stipulations of the newly passed legislation include new container inspection standards, increased communication between security agencies that oversee imports and exports and increased funding for inspection programs.

Reid was forced to vote for the bill due to its overwhelming support, and released no press release about its passage. One of the Democrats’ signature issues was instantly seized by the opposition.

In contrast, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) was more than happy to trumpet the bill’s passage last week. “We must keep America safe from the unimaginable horror of a terrorist-detonated nuclear bomb coming in through one of our ports,” said Frist. “This bipartisan bill is crucial to that endeavor.”  

The Fallout

The Democrats’ efforts to bolster their security credentials may fall on deaf public ears this November. The remainder of their Real Security Act package is largely platitudinous. In addition, the Democrats have displayed confusion on rhetoric in relation to security matters, and a lack of a concrete legislative agenda that contrasts with current congressional leadership.

The only thing Democrats seem to agree upon is that America “needs new leadership,” a theme echoed one hundred times over in over the past few weeks. It remains to be seen, however, what Democratic leadership on security matters would look like. Without port security as a wedge issue, an inability to agree on what constitutes a dangerous regime, and a lack of an alternative plan, the Democrats stand a good chance of remaining impotent in the minds of American voters.