Iraq War Veteran and Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth wants her party to talk more about the military.
With the 2020 elections looming, Democrats — especially the growing list of presidential hopefuls — need to do a better job outlining their goals for national security, Duckworth said, especially as Republicans try to paint the party’s positions as sacrificing defense spending for other domestic priorities.
“I don’t see it as a zero-sum game, which is what the right wing is selling,” she said. “That zero-sum game is something we have to reject.”
In a speech at the National Press Club this week, Duckworth laid out her vision of a strong national security plan. It includes a well-funded fighting force but also better schools and family support programs to to provide the social infrastructure needed for tomorrow’s potential recruits.
“We need a platform that balances investing in our weaponry with investing in our citizenry, investing in our economy,” she said. “It’s rejecting the false choice between looking out for our troops overseas and caring for our families here at home.”
In an interview with Military Times after the speech, she argued that the topic is a key qualification for any would-be commander-in-chief, but it is not getting enough liberal attention at the moment.
Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.
MT: What was your goal with the speech?
Duckworth: I had two purposes. One was to set the stage for my service on the Armed Services Committee. I want to be here a long time; I want to serve my state and my country a long time; I want to serve on Armed Services a long time.
The other thing I was trying to do with the speech was to nudge my party. The move towards 2020, everything that is going on. I wanted to stick a marker in the ground that we need to be strong on defense.
There are many things that relate to national security. I choose to look at a lot of the things they talk about — hunger programs, food stamps, health care — I choose to look at that from a national security perspective. I’m trying to nudge my party to understand there is a national security perspective to this.
There is not a lot on the Democratic side of the aisle that chooses to push that national security perspective. I’m trying to make this part of the dialogue with everyone who is running.
MT: Where do you feel your party is now on national security?
Duckworth: We need to be better at expressing our strong national security credentials and policies. I don’t think Democrats as a party do a good job at that.
A speech like this one [is] to say, “Hey, we can talk about national security, but there is a way to talk about it that wraps in many of the initiatives we are already doing.” We have never tried to explain them in national security grounds.
I also want my party in the presidential debates to have one on the military, on national security. Not just the Green New Deal, or Medicare for all, but on national security and where we are in the world.
I don’t like that in my meetings with (Pentagon leaders) in recent weeks, I’ve had four-stars tell me that the Chinese are no longer afraid of us. They respect us, but they no longer fear us like they did five or ten years ago. I don’t like that.
MT: Is that because of the president or their own growth?
Duckworth: I think it’s an evolution of their defense spending and us leaving a void out there that they are happy to try and fill. They have a 30-year plan they are moving forward with. We’re not countering them on any effective basis.
We’re hanging on to our legacy, which is an amazing legacy, but we’re not countering them the way we should. We should be investing in super-computing. We should be investing in hypersonics. In Illinois, we have a quantum computer that is one of the best in the world, but within a few months it may not be as others come online.
I’m trying to say to the Democrats running for president that they need to pay attention to this.
MT: Is national security an issue Democrats can run and win on in 2020?
Duckworth: I think it will help them run and win, especially in the middle of the country. I think that’s missing in our conversations.
I had a large group of female veterans to the Senate for lunch recently because I’m trying to pull together all the Dem national security folks and unite us in a way that forces the party to pay attention.
I won parts of Illinois that (President Donald) Trump won. That’s what (Ohio Democratic) Sen. Sherrod Brown talks about when he talks about the party’s needs. You have to talk to working families. You have to talk to people about the dignity of work. But it’s also about national security. That’s a big deal.
National security is something people talk about when I go to southern Illinois and central Illinois, because those are the families who send their kids into the military generation after generation. This is where a lot of that tradition is now.
MT: Can you build on the larger number of Democratic military veterans who entered Congress last cycle?
Duckworth: We can. I’m working hard to pull them together, making sure I can give them any assistance they need and identifying legislation that we can work on together.
Everywhere I go, I tell my audience that if any of them are veterans who want to run, come talk to me. I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. I promise I’ll put the Republicans in touch with the right people to help them run and help them win.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.