Democrats lose by not putting foreign policy in play

July 16, 2002|By Gregory Michaelidis

THE RECENT remark by White House chief of staff Andrew Card that Democrats "should leave foreign policy to the president" demeaned the role that Congress plays in formulating America's foreign policy. Yet as far as congressional Democrats go, Mr. Card wishes for something that may actually be coming true.

The White House has looked unsteady lately on U.S. policies toward the environment, intelligence and the Middle East, among other issues. But despite the Bush team's lack of cogency, the silence of all but a few Democratic leaders only grows louder.

It seems that foreign policy, either carried out well or not, is becoming the province of Republicans.

Example: President Bush in early June disavowed a 268-page report from the Environmental Protection Agency that found solid scientific evidence for global warming. Our allies around the world rightly hoped this would signal a change in policy from the inconsistency between the report and the administration's failure to propose alternatives after their rejection of the Kyoto accords in March.

But aside from a speech by Al Gore urging Mr. Bush to accept the EPA's findings, no major Democrat came forth to point out the inconsistency between the report and Mr. Bush's own view that the jury is still out on global warming.

Those few who speak regularly on international issues, such as Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware and Reps. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Tom Lantos of California, if anything push the administration to focus more attention on major challenges such as climate change and the Middle East.

But without other Democrats asking serious questions about our lack of clear policies in these areas, support for the president's handling of foreign policy remains artificially high. Vice President Dick Cheney's repeated claim that criticizing the president shows a lack of patriotism has further boxed in Democrats who might otherwise speak.

Yet supporting the war on terror should not preclude Democrats from critiquing the administration when they disagree - on support for the Kyoto treaty or the International Criminal Court, for example. And the notion that criticizing the president's foreign policy at a time of war is unpatriotic doesn't hold water. The war on terror, according to Mr. Bush, knows no temporal or spatial bounds. Does this mean the party that's not in power should give a pass to the president on foreign policy?

The Democrats also have themselves to blame for their unwillingness to engage the administration on foreign affairs. Top Democratic strategists like Robert Shrum and James Carville argue that winning back the House this November requires Democratic incumbents and new candidates alike to make the case for bread-and-butter issues such as education and health care and not be out debating guns.

But focusing solely on domestic concerns is a poor strategy for Democrats for several reasons. The Shrum-Carville approach is built on an assumption that the public's faith in Republican supremacy on foreign affairs is unshakable. But Democrats will not know unless they try, and they have been largely unwilling, and therefore unable, to articulate their differences on foreign policy since Sept. 11.

Further, if Democrats accept the notion that they will always be losers in foreign policy, they will make it harder for future Democratic leaders to convey credibility. In addition, they will falter on an issue of growing national importance - a recent Fox News poll found that 52 percent of Americans now think national security is more important than the nation's economy.

Perhaps the most important reason for Democratic candidates to reject the Shrum-Carville approach is because in a post-Sept. 11 world it is more important that our leaders exhibit competency in foreign affairs. The globalization of trade, migration and, unfortunately, terror means that to ignore the foreign is to imperil the domestic. Voters as concerned about their personal security as their retirement security will demand leaders who have a grasp of both.

Supporting the president at a time of war is admirable but should not mean abandoning foreign affairs to the White House. Democrats should be proud of their internationalism and should be willing to compliment the administration for work well done.

But they should continue to critique policies they see as not being in the national interest. To do so is to practice the essence of democracy.

Gregory Michaelidis, a foreign policy researcher on the Gore/Lieberman 2000 campaign, is senior associate for policy with the Hatcher Group, a public affairs firm in Bethesda.

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