First Steps to Building a House

Simple House Building / September 18, 2018

Democrats on Capitol Hill may be the minority party searching within for an identity after four consecutive special election losses this year, but that doesn't mean that the party is completely devoid of influence. Democratic lawmakers still have the power of imagination and a sympathetic media environment that they can exploit to get their message out to the American people. And if that agenda strikes a dagger in the heart of President Trump, so much the better.

Five Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee, coordinated by the top Democrat of that committee, are trying to set an example for the rest of their colleagues through a piece they this Wednesday. While the subject they focus on concerns the Russians and President Vladimir Putin, their theme isn't about collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign, James Comey's firing, or Robert Mueller's Investigation.

Instead, the article attempts to draw an outline of a Democratic foreign policy for the 21st century — a policy suitable to a time when hybrid-warfare and disinformation campaigns by the Kremlin are increasingly being used as weapons to weaken the pillars that sustain western democracy. As the authors write, "[w]e must recognize that we find ourselves in a serious contest between our values of representative democracy, individual freedom, transparency, accountability and promotion of the common good, and the Putinist values of oppression, nihilism and kleptocracy."

The recommendations that this small group of Democrats put on the table are wide-ranging, will cost a significant amount of money, require immense focus and unity-of-effort across administrations if each is to work, and will read a lot like the democracy agenda that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promoted more than a decade ago. Indeed, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and his colleagues take a partially-apocalyptic tune, arguing that the United States and its fellow western democracies are unprepared for the Russian-supported authoritarian wave smashing on the beaches of Europe. Perhaps this is why these five lawmakers offer such a lengthy list of remedies: on everything from creating new alliances and making old ones more durable to Russian influence and subterfuge, to increasing the State Department budget in order to better finance democracy promotion across the globe. Much of the piece reads like a treatise from Socrates, John Locke, and Alexander Hamilton, just with modern-day language.

We can have a debate on whether the ideas advocated by Armed Services Committee Democrats are doable or realistic at a time when Washington's budgets are still mandated by the limits of sequestration. That, for the moment, isn't the point.

What is just as important to keep in mind is that a group of Democratic lawmakers with representation from the establishment and progressive wings of the party had enough self-control to bury their ideological differences in the sand and work together in order to release an ambitious national security strategy. At first blush, this may not sound like a very big deal; after all, isn't this what voters expect from the people they send to Congress?

As understandable as that perception is, however, it would cast a cloud over what the five House Democrats are really seeking to accomplish: demonstrate to the people that, notwithstanding the negative stereotypes of a Democratic Party machine separated from middle- and working-class America, hiding out in their coastal bastions, and struggling to find an agenda other than attacking everything that Trump does, Democrats do in fact have an alternate vision to offer the country. They aren't just a collection of out-of-touch liberals thriving on identity politics, but a party that can knock their heads together and come up with serious proposals that will improve the lives of average people and maintain the U.S. role in the world.

By outlining a realistic foreign policy for modern times, Reps. Smith, Seth Moulton, Stephanie Murphy, Ruben Gallego, and Joe Courtney may have given the first pinch to a Democratic Party struggling to wake itself out of a deep slumber.