Magazine

Democrats: The Hawks Are Back in Town


At 8:30 a.m. on September 11, Representative Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.) was repeating his usual pitch to House Democratic leaders about the need to boost defense spending. "I was getting a lot of yawns until someone walked in and said they had just hit the towers," Dicks says. "I don't think they're yawning anymore."

No, indeed. The Democrats' resistance to a massive infusion of spending for defense modernization ended that day. The attacks jolted the party out of its post-cold war emphasis on economics and domestic policy and gave rise to a new breed of hawk. The Demo-hawks--more a winglet than a wing of the party--are trying to develop a pro-defense, internationalist agenda not seen since the days of Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson. Among them are: Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.); Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden (Del.); Representative Jane Harman (Calif.), top Democrat on the House panel responsible for homeland security; and Dicks, a longtime Pentagon champion.

BELLICOSE. The most outspoken is Lieberman, who sounds far more bellicose than President Bush. In an Oct. 15 speech to the New Democrat Network, he said the U.S. should be "unflinching in our determination" to remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. He warned Syria and Iran that they would share the Taliban's fate unless they ended support for terrorists. Indeed, Demo-hawks have outflanked their party leadership--including former Vice-President Al Gore, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt--which stands firmly with Bush.

That's a big change in a short time. With the end of the cold war and the loss of pro-military Democrats such as Senators Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Sam Nunn of Georgia, and Charles Robb of Virginia, the party had precious few figures willing to make the case for costly new weapons systems. "You essentially have a generation of lawmakers who don't have a lot of experience in foreign policy," concedes Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network.

The party's lack of emphasis on defense didn't matter much when peace and prosperity reigned. But now Dems find themselves scrambling on the new No. 1 issue. "The Republican Party historically has had a solid advantage on national security," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. "That's a political liability the Democrats need to squarely address." Adds pro-military Senator Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.): "Vietnam was such a point of reference for Democrats for so long that it blinded [them to] any other historical experience."

What's next as the hawks try to harken back to the firm foreign policy of Harry S Truman and John F. Kennedy? Lieberman and Biden--both potential 2004 Presidential candidates--may try to out-tough the President by condemning rogue nations that resist U.S. attempts to extirpate terrorist cells. Indeed, jockeying for the 2004 nomination has been turned upside down as military vets rise to the top and others with scant foreign policy credentials, such as North Carolina Senator John Edwards, slip a rung. "It's going to put a premium on people with an intellectual capacity to sort out complex international problems," says Kerrey, a decorated Vietnam War vet and president of the New School University in New York. Perhaps Kerrey himself?

The neohawks are still struggling with their agenda--and their identity. "The hawk-dove thing was overused in Vietnam," protests Dicks. "If I'm going to be a hawk, I want to be a rational hawk." Whatever they're called, the challenge is to convince skeptical Americans that the Democratic Party is not the party of the dove. The beleaguered airline industry walked away with $15 billion in federal aid, but the message for other industries is: Forget about it! Bush aides viewed the corporate beg-fest that followed September 11 as unseemly. Budget Director Mitch Daniels dashed lobbyists' hopes in a speech on Oct. 16: "Other sector-specific bailouts should be avoided....Attempting to rush from sector to sector applying first aid would be an economically futile and fiscally ruinous mistake," he said. Telecom lobbyists are struggling to get back on the agenda in the wake of the terror attacks. Industry leaders such as Lucent Technologies (LU) and Cisco Systems (CSCO)--already suffering from the dot-com shakeout and a slowing economy--want Congress to include in any stimulus plan a $2 billion tax credit for companies that roll out new high-capacity Internet lines. Plan B is to persuade President Bush to make a commitment to broadband in his January State of the Union address. President Bush's record-breaking popularity isn't giving Republican gubernatorial candidates much of a boost in two Nov. 6 contests. In Virginia, Democrat Mark Warner clings to a narrow lead, despite the state's GOP tilt. And some New Jersey Republican veterans worry that nominee Bret Schundler's gaffe-marred campaign might cost the party control of the governor's mansion and the legislature. Among his boo-boos: criticizing the state's response to September 11.


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