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Few Democrats Offer Alternatives to War-Weary Voters

The party's failure to challenge US foreign policy is both a moral and strategic failure

Delegates with an anti-war message at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo: via EuroYankee)

Chants of “No More War” from delegates at the 2016 Democratic National Convention gave voice to sentiments that still resonate through the base of the party and the broad U.S. public, notably in communities with higher rates of military sacrifice.

While Trump’s 2016 victories in swing states may well have been aided by his posing as a foe of protracted war, his administration’s Mideast policies have largely exposed that masquerade. Unfortunately, the weak and confused positions of Democratic leaders on endless war and bloated military spending offer little alternative to war-weary voters. 

Polls show the popularity of a progressive domestic agenda on issues from jobs to healthcare to free public college, but few Democrats in Congress are willing to strongly challenge the unaccountable military budget, which soaks up most discretionary spending that could be redirected toward the party’s proclaimed domestic agenda. By Obama’s last year in office, overall “defense” spending was higher (adjusted for inflation) than “at any point since World War II,” according to Peter Beinart (“The Democrats Keep Capitulating on Defense Spending”)—and significantly higher than during the Vietnam War.

Yet during federal budget negotiations early this year—with Trump requesting a staggering 11 percent Pentagon budget increase over two years—Nancy Pelosi boasted in an email to House Democrats: “In our negotiations, Congressional Democrats have been fighting for increases in funding for defense.” The office of Senate Democratic  leader Chuck Schumer declared: “We fully support President Trump’s Defense Department’s request.”  The budget agreement ultimately passed the Senate with more Democrats (36) voting for it than Republicans (34). Among the Democratic senators who voted no were the five most-often touted as potential 2020 presidential candidates – Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Jeff Merkley and Elizabeth Warren; independent Bernie Sanders also voted no.

Months later, an overwhelming majority of House and Senate Democrats supported the massive 2019 “National Defense Authorization Act” of $717 billion. The small minority of Democratic “no” votes in the Senate included five of the potential presidential candidates mentioned above; Booker voted “yea.”

In 2018, few Democratic candidates for Congress conveyed to voters how military budget cuts could make an expansive domestic agenda possible. Notable exceptions include Rep. Barbara Lee (CA) and  four newcomers (all women of color) expected to be sworn into Congress in January: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ilhan Omar (MN), Rashida Tlaib (MI) and Ayanna Pressley (MA). 

While Democratic leaders failed to resist Trump over war spending, they did loudly resist the prospect of peace breaking out in Korea. In June, on the eve of nuclear talks between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un (a process sparked by South Korea’s progressive-leaning president), Schumer and six other senior Democratic senators sent a rejectionist letter to Trump demanding that any hint of sanctions relief for North Korea be dependent on an agreement with obviously impossible conditions. The letter mirrored GOP objections to Obama’s Iran nuclear deal (such as the agreement needing to be permanent) – and the rejectionism was derided in a New York Times column (“Democrats Childishly Resist Trump’s North Korea Efforts”) by Nicholas Kristof: “Shock! Horror! President Trump is actually doing something right. Sadly, Democrats in Congress are responding in a quite Trumpian way: They seem more concerned with undermining him than supporting a peace process with North Korea.”

Trump has a dangerous admiration for dictators like those in North Korea and Saudi Arabia—and for authoritarians like those in Russia and the Philippines. Democrats need to condemn such admiration without succumbing to reckless bellicosity.

The United States and Russia possess 93 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Amid evidence of a Russian effort to help Trump during our 2016 election (evidently less effective and overt than the U.S. effort 20 years earlier that successfully backed an erratic, anti-democratic candidate in Russia’s presidential election), many Democratic leaders seem oblivious to the ongoing threat of armed conflict with Russia – a peril that was profoundly understood by Democratic presidents  during the height of the Cold War when Russia had a much worse form of government. Reacting to evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, numerous Democrats have engaged in extreme rhetoric , calling it an “act of war” and “equivalent” to Pearl Harbor. Democratic leaders have rarely acknowledged the crucial need for “a shift in approach toward Russia” including “steps to ease tensions between the nuclear superpowers,” in the words of an Open Letter  for “Election Secuirty and True National Security,” released this summer.

With consistently moral foreign policies that reject costly militarism and continuous intervention, Democrats could inspire the party base and gain support among swing voters and independents (especially third-party voters). But advocacy of those policies come mostly from a minority of Democratic “backbenchers,” not leaders. 

The party leadership has routinely been absent in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen caused primarily by the U.S.-backed Saudi war (and White House coziness with Saudi Arabia). In March, Bernie Sanders, Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Mike Lee forced a vote on their Senate resolution to end U.S. military support for the Saudis in Yemen. In the face of White House opposition and apparent indifference among Democratic leaders, it went down to defeat (55-44) thanks to ten Democratic ‘no’ votes. With the disaster continuing to worsen in Yemen, the House Democratic leadership reportedly dragged its feet while progressive first-term Congressman Ro Khanna persistently led a bipartisan effort to get a vote on a similar measure; finally, in late September, Khanna was able to introduce the resolution with some high-level party support.

On matters of war and peace—for instance, the 17-year occupation of Afghanistan or Team Trump’s extremely one-sided Israel-Palestine policy—top Democrats have offered few coherent alternative policies. In May, for example, Schumer praised Trump for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem days after he criticized Trump for withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement—a deal Schumer had originally opposed. And Democratic leaders have made scant objections to Trump administration actions that a director at Amnesty International USA described as “hugely expanding the use of drone and airstrikes, including outside of war zones, and increasing civilian casualties in the process.”

Democrats often denounce the GOP for immoral and extremist domestic policies favoring the powerful. But the party’s failure to challenge such foreign policies is a moral and political tragedy. 

A version of this article appears as part of “Democratic Autopsy: One Year Later,” a research report supported by RootsAction.org and excerpted by The Nation.    

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Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen was associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). He is the author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media - and a cofounder of the online action group, www.RootsAction.org. His website is here: http://jeffcohen.org

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