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If Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has a certain New York panache that drives conservatives batty, Rep. Elissa Slotkin does Midwestern Nice in a way that will irritate no one. And I mean that as a compliment.

Slotkin, a former CIA officer and Pentagon policymaker, was just elected from Michigan’s 8th District,  a diverse swath of central Michigan  that has urban, suburban and rural constituencies. She is part of a wave of women who give the Democratic House a fresh new look as it assumes the majority control. She is also one of eight military or service veterans in the Congress’s freshman class.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, CIA officer turned Democratic congresswoman.

When Slotkin  took the stage at the Defense One Summit at the Newseum in Washington on Thursday, I was listening for one thing. Where does she think the Democratic party should go on issues of war and peace, foreign policy and homeland security? This was an informal, “let’s get to know you” type event, so it was not a time for specifics. But generally speaking, I liked what I heard.

‘Close the Gap’

Slotkin emphasized how distant foreign and military policy issues are to most Americans. In her 18 month campaign, Slotkin said she was asked about national security issues  no more than 10 times.

“I want to close the gap between people who do national security for a living and the people,” she said at one point. That needs to be the premise of any Democratic foreign policy message, whether progressive or moderate. A party’s foreign policy message cannot just be moralistic. It has to be relevant to people’s lives.

Slotkin said only two foreign policy incidents really captured voters’ passions during her campaign: the separation of families on the Mexican border and Trump’s summit meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin.  Both came with vivid TV images and evoked visceral emotions. Neither helped the president, she observed.

“The president of the United States showing such deference to the president of Russia was little too much, even for Trump supporters,” she said.

‘Dereliction of Duty’

In her campaign Slotkin stressed she was not part of the #Resistance, but she adder her view that “the split between progressives and moderates is overblown.” Her mantra:  “You can’t just be for inhibiting our forces. You have to be for something.” Which as also true: a Democratic foreign policy needs to have a purpose beyond negating current policies.

(While listening to Slotkin, I thought of Bernie Sanders’  Foreign Policy for the Common Man.  I wonder what she thinks of it.)

One big plus: Slotkin favors a new Authorization of Military Force (AUMF) for U.S. military action around the world. She lamented that “a decent bipartisan agreement” between Sens. Tim Kaine and Bob Corker, had bogged down last year and was abandoned. Progressives feared the new AUMF would simply guarantee more endless war. Moderates feared the progressive AUMF would make them vulnerable to accusations of “cutting off the troops.”

“The divisions on Democratic side were a dereliction of duty,” she said. “We need to get moving.”

Issues of war and peace pose a paradox for the party. Foreign policy issues are not an important issue to most Americans. But if Sanders or any another Democrat is elected president in 2020 that will change. Managing a mammoth defense budget, a global military presence, and four undeclared wars  will be a huge governing issue.

Perhaps the most important thing Congress can do is reassert its powers of advice and consent. Here, Slotkin could make a difference: simply by forcing the issue of a new AUMF. If she can help forge a new consensus between progressives and moderates, not simply ratifying the militaristic status quo, she will be a leader.

Framing the Issues

Slotkin said all the right things about the Saudi-coalition war in Yemen. The Saudis, she said, flouted the agreements they made with the Obama administration about their targeting practices.  “We should be reevaluating every piece of our assistance,” she said, a message that surely all Democrats can endorse, along with a few libertarian Republicans.y

I especially liked her knack for framing security issues in personal terms.

She said she wants a new AUMF because her stepdaughter is deploying to Iraq next year. “I want to be up to date about the threats she’s facing now,” Slotkin said, “not the threat in 2002.”

She spoke about the water crisis in nearby Flint. “One of things that is emerging in Michigan and industrial Midwest,” she said, “is thinking about environmental security like we think about homeland security.”

Slotkin didn’t pretend to offer grand strategy solutions for Congress. “I’m still trying to figure out where the bathrooms are,” she joked. She’s not cutting edge. She’s Midwestern Nice with substance. You get the feeling her boots have been on the ground.

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