Democrats' true colors?

Posted: Jun 25, 2002 12:00 AM
Since September 11th, some congressional Democrats have imitated chameleons, altering their observable ideological coloration for tactical political advantage. Like their reptilian counterparts, the motivation has been simple: Survival. The transparent calculation has been that if they marched in lock-step with a popular Republican President on national and homeland security matters, while highlighting disagreements over domestic policy, Democrats would get credit for bipartisanship while denying the GOP the benefits of its most potent wartime appeal. Until now, the strategy has largely worked. Early on, President Bush showed his appreciation by publicly embracing Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Democrats have approved nearly all of the funding sought by the Bush Administration for the war effort and for rebuilding/transforming the U.S. military. And, Democrats have assiduously sought to portray themselves as more committed to homeland defense even than Mr. Bush, championing for months the Cabinet-level agency reorganization he embraced two weeks ago and trying to add billions of dollars more than he deems needed for new spending in the name of protecting the Nation and its people here at home. Within hours of this writing, however, Senate Democrats will be forced to show their true colors. Republicans are expected to offer a floor amendment to the Fiscal Year 2003 defense authorization bill (S.2514) that would undo the damage done last month at the instigation of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin to President Bush's effort to protect the American homeland against ballistic missile attack -- the one real and growing threat against which we are currently absolutely defenseless. Specifically, over unified Republican opposition, Sen. Levin persuaded the Committee's Democratic majority to cut $814 million -- more than 10% of the total request for missile defense. The latter also imposed legislative language that will make it difficult, if not as a practical matter impossible, to use the money they did approve in such a way as actually to develop and deploy effective anti-missile systems. As one of Sen. Levin's staffers recently boasted to a colleague, the objective is clear: "We killed Brilliant Pebbles [a promising, space-based missile defense program pursued by President Reagan]. Now we will kill this [one]." Lest there be any doubt as to the effect of the Levin gambit, the head of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, warned that the bill now before the full Senate would "fundamentally undermine the Administration's transformation of missile defense capabilities." The GOP amendment to restore full funding and strip out the hamstringing Levin language will offer Senate Democrats an opportunity to show what they are really made of. Are they as determined as President Bush and others in his party -- if not more so -- to secure our homeland against those who wish to do us harm? Or are they really most interested in protecting themselves politically? Democrats cannot have it both ways. Either they are serious about affording the public and our country with the means to counter enemy attacks -- whether undertaken with fuel trucks, ship-borne containers, commercial airliners, crop-dusters or missiles -- or they are not. Their true colors will be apparent to all if their ideological opposition to missile defense is seen as trumping their purported commitment to defending the homeland. Incredibly, the Levin gambit would also seriously interfere with the President's efforts to provide protection to our troops overseas and allies -- many of whom are currently under direct threat of missile attack. Before September 11, even Democrats who opposed anti-missile protection for the United States claimed that they strongly supported so-called "theater" missile defenses. So why would responsible members of the Democratic Party agree to legislation that would, in Gen. Kadish's words, "eliminate the opportunity for the earliest possible contingency against medium-range ballistic missiles abroad"? Some Democratic Senators may try to justify their vote for Sen. Levin's position on the grounds that -- now that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is no longer an impediment to development and deployment of effective missile defenses -- they are worried that Gen. Kadish may use too streamlined an R&D, acquisition and management approach. How dare he use such time-tested business techniques as "spiral development" and "capabilities-based acquisition" to ensure that something actually comes from the billions spent on missile defense? Before going with this particular color scheme, though, such legislators should be aware of a letter written to members of the Armed Services Committee on May 6, 2002 by President Clinton's Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Jacques Gansler. In it he endorsed Gen. Kadish's approach saying "To minimize risk (and cost) but have an early deployed deterrence, the use of spiral development and capability-based acquisition is definitely appropriate -- from both a management and a military perspective." In short, Senators like Jean Carnahan, Zell Miller, Joseph Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Daniel Inouye and Fritz Hollings have a chance to demonstrate whether, for them at least, the pledge of bipartisanship in the face of a common and resourceful enemy and the profession of a shared commitment to do what we must to prevail in the war on terror is a subterfuge or the real thing. For those of us whose fondly remember the courageous leadership within the Democratic Party on such matters of the late Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, we can only hope that his genuine commitment to bipartisanship in the service of the national security will be shown to live on in the hearts and minds of his counterparts in the Senate today. If not, they will hand Mr. Bush and others who share his determination to deploy missile defenses "as soon as possible" a winning issue for the elections ahead.