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How Progressives Took Over U.S. Foreign Policy: The Truman National Security Project

America’s foreign policy establishment has seen a decided shift to the left. One organization, the Truman National Security Project, has worked for more than a decade towards achieving that shift. Lima Charlie News reports on Truman and the push towards progressive dominance in the politics of national security.

Tucked away on the 5th floor of a high rise overlooking Franklin Square in Washington, D.C., the Truman National Security Project hides in plain sight, serving as a catalyst for young progressives eager to move the country away from neoconservative values. While the group began as a more traditional foreign policy think tank, Truman has evolved into an incubator for like-minded military veterans, political operatives, and policy wonks determined to shape foreign policy into a more progressive mold.

Founded in 2005 by Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld and Matthew Spence, Truman serves as a left-leaning counterpart to think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. In the wake of Senator John Kerry’s failed presidential bid in 2004, many on the left began searching for explanations. Post-election polling revealed foreign policy to be the top concern among voters that year, an issue contributing strongly to President Bush’s re-election. In the aftermath, Kleinfeld and Spence began to work with several colleagues on building programs and policies to turn the left’s perceived weakness on foreign policy into a source of strength.

By 2011, Truman had grown to an organization with $4 million in funding from influential groups like the Carnegie Endowment Fund and Herbert and Marion Sandler. By 2016, Truman’s membership has reached over 1,500, many of which are military veterans. Truman’s board of advisors includes former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

Image Truman National Security Project logo

Frank Spring, Truman’s Director of Political Affairs, attributed the group’s success to having “The right mix of self-starting, motivated members.” He added, “[Truman leadership’s] job is to continue adding the right people to the mix to build upon what we’ve already accomplished.” Truman trains its members in foreign policy, defense, and national security issues and provides media and communications training to spread its message. Truman also provides one-on-one training sessions for Members of Congress, as well as veterans and military families outreach training. Members are expected to demonstrate activism through policy, communications, or political expertise and military, NGO, or security experience, with typical members joining the organization in their late 20s to early 40s.

Policy & Politics

The impact of organizations like Truman can often be difficult to quantify. None of the political or policy advocacy Truman conducts occurs in a vacuum, and no shortages exist of groups looking to claim credit for positive developments. Even so, much of Truman’s work to change the conversation around foreign policy has had substantive consequences.

The organization’s current leadership points to discussions of climate change as a major national security issue, rather than solely an environmental or economic concern, as one such example. Truman President and CEO Michael Breen told Lima Charlie News, “The fact that there’s a national security conversation about climate change is largely due to Truman.” Truman was also involved in the Afghan Allies Protection Extension Act, which allows the State Department to issue visas to Afghan translators who assisted U.S. troops during the War in Afghanistan.

In 2013, Truman unveiled a new strategy of running candidates for political office, as well as encouraging its members to engage more fully in the political process. This added strategy has given rise to the term “think-do-tank”. As traditional think tanks focus on mostly on policy, research, and advocacy, Truman staff and members are seeking to affect policy by holding the offices that create and vote on it. The group has also provided support for the Clinton campaign and down ballot progressive nominees. According to Breen, “The signature of Truman politics is that we do the hard work that isn’t flashy, the grunt work, like knocking on doors. We had Get Out the Vote efforts in at least 8 states this past weekend alone.”

In 2016, 48 Truman members ran for elected office at the local and national level, though the organization has declined to formally endorse those members. Kristine Reeves, a Truman member and candidate for state representative in Washington State, has been endorsed by President Obama, but not by the Truman National Security Project. Spring told Lima Charlie News that the decision to endorse candidates is made by an anonymous board of Truman members, and stressed that 2016 is the first election cycle that Truman has endorsed candidates.

To date, Truman has formally endorsed candidates in four U.S. Senate races, including Kamala Harris (D-CA), Katie McGinty (D-PA), Michael Bennett (D-CO), and Maggie Hassan (D-NH). In discussing endorsement decisions, Frank Spring clarified, “We want Truman endorsements to be tied to a reasonable package of support,” noting that Truman’s strategies for promoting and supporting members running at the state and local level are still being developed.

Image Seth Moulton
Rep. Seth Moulton (MA-6), Truman National Security Project member (Boston Globe)

While the organization has yet to endorse candidates running below the level of the U.S. Senate, much of the focus of Truman’s political turn has been to prepare candidates to run at an earlier stage. When asked how state and local politicians could further the policies of a national security and foreign policy organization, Spring stated, “The values of Truman live on every level of government.” Spring cited Georgia Senate Bill 304, sponsored by Truman member and Georgia state Representative Scott Holcomb, which requires Georgia law enforcement to find and test more than 3000 untested rape kits. The bill passed dramatically in the final minutes of the state’s legislative session. Spring remarked that it was a “massive win” for those who ascribe to Truman’s philosophy.

Three Truman members will be on the ballot for federal office this November alone. Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5), Seth Moulton (MA-6), and John Plumb (NY-23) are all running for the U.S. House of Representatives. Two other Truman members, Sean Barney and Bryan Townsend both lost their primary bid for Delaware’s lone seat in the House of Representatives to Lisa Blunt Rochester, who seeks to become the first African American and first woman elected to Congress in Delaware.

Moulton, in particular, presents one of the largest examples of what Truman has accomplished through the political process. A former Marine Corps officer, Moulton has already found his way into Congress, representing Massachusetts’ 6th Congressional District. In Iraq, Moulton led one of the first infantry platoons into Baghdad, and served four tours of duty from 2003-2008. He was also injured during the Battle of Nasiriyah, which earned him the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for valor as well as the Bronze Star Medal. Moulton did not reveal that he was awarded the Bronze Star during his 2014 congressional campaign until it was discovered by the Boston Globe. Moulton stated he did not mention the award out of respect to “many others who did heroic things and received no awards at all.”

Our ace in the hole is the incredible quality of our membership.

– Michael Breen, President & CEO

The Trump Factor

Seth Moulton has said it would be the responsibility of the military to disobey Donald Trump, if he were to become president. Trump has openly supported the use torture and the killing of suspected terrorists’ families as tactics to combat terrorism. Both constitute war crimes under the Geneva Convention.

Image Trump veterans

Moulton is not the only Truman member critical of Trump, especially relating to foreign policy. Truman has released a series of videos with members stating in stark terms the reasons they believe Trump is unfit to be Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. military. These videos are part of a broader campaign by Truman members to help defeat Trump in the election.

One of the videos shows Georgia state Rep. and former Army captain, Scott Holcomb, who says “Mr. Trump’s comments about Muslims and about minorities in this country and around the globe are candidly dangerous and they do not represent our American values.” In another video former Marine Corps Captain Kristin Kavanaugh, discusses Trump’s comments on torture and targeting civilians, saying “Those aren’t the kind of things we advocate for in the military. We have laws and rules for a reason…Donald Trump talking about torturing people is un-American.”

Another video features Justin McFarlin, a former Army Captain, who states that “the decisions [Donald Trump] has to make as president will have huge consequences for generations to come” and “if you love your family, friends, children and grandchildren, don’t vote for Donald Trump.”

This type of rhetoric represents a new front for Truman, as the organization confronts a Republican nominee viewed by the group as a grave threat to its worldview and values.

Truman has also created an online application based on the format of the book series “Choose Your Own Adventure”, aptly titled “Choose Your Own Trumpventure”. The book is designed to illustrate the perceived negative consequences of a potential Trump administration. Spring said of the product, “It’s all of that expertise [of Truman], and done in a really new and fun way…I think it’s a tool that can live on past the election.”

Controversies & Issue Differences

While Truman has only existed for 11 years, it has still found the time to endure controversy. In 2011, Truman expelled former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block from its membership for criticizing writers from the Center for American Progress. Block allegedly characterized the writers as being anti-Semitic for their writing on Israel, Palestine, and Iran.

Criticisms again arose that Truman is too soft on Israel–and the Middle East in general–when the Washington Free Beacon writer Adam Kredo reported that Truman was preparing its members to champion the Iran nuclear deal well before the details of the deal were known and before the deal passed. Members were told that if the deal passed it would be a “#BFdeal” (Big f#*king deal). The report quotes Truman co-founder Rachel Kleinfeld describing the revelation as “embarrassing”, saying it was “not the organization I used to run.” Josh Block told Kredo “Truman Project’s campaign in support of any Iran deal—and blanket ‘warmongers’ slur against anyone, Democrat or Republican, who disagrees—is a betrayal of Democratic values and sad proof of how corrupt and intellectually dishonest the Left wing of the Democratic Party has become”.

When asked about the Washington Free Beacon’s report, Spring told Lima Charlie News, “It was no secret that we would support the Iran nuclear deal. The essential contours of the deal were not a secret. Even at the early stages, the deal was meant to end Iranian nuclear ambitions without firing a single shot. The [Washington Free Beacon’s report] revealed public record.”

Despite the Washington Free Beacon episode, Truman members continued advocating strongly for the nuclear agreement. Truman President and CEO, Michael Breen, wrote in Defense One in 2015 arguing on behalf of the deal. “If Congress endorses this diplomatic victory, we will have stopped Iran’s nuclear program without risking American lives, while preserving the military option if they cheat in the future.” Additionally, the organization produced television ads featuring Iraq War veterans who support the deal.

Nearly a year after the agreement was reached between the negotiating parties, Truman views the deal as one of its brightest moments. “We’ve had a very large impact, at least according to the President [of the United States], on the Iran Deal,” Breen stated. Spring echoed those comments as well, in describing the large coalition Truman participated in to shape public opinion in support of the agreement.

Another point of controversy is the support of some members for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal (TPP), which is supported by President Obama, but is opposed by 63% of Americans who have heard of the bill. According to a Harvard poll that shows opposition to the deal, only 29% of Americans have heard of it. Truman fellow and former White House senior economic advisor to President Obama, Steven Glickman, wrote an article for U.S. News arguing in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying the deal “is a potent check on Chinese power”. In a blog post published on Truman’s website, Michael D. Purzycki argued that TPP is a key element of America’s pivot towards East Asia in terms of trade, and would help check the rise of China. Spring pointed out that Truman does not have a position on TPP, but that members have varying opinions on the deal. He said Truman is not necessarily a free trade organization, but any deal “has to work for U.S. citizens and the rest of the world.”

Moving Forward

Issues like TPP highlight a growing rift in the Democratic Party, which has been exposed in the 2016 presidential primary between the more progressive elements of the Left and more traditional establishment Democrats. The rift is largely generational, but it raises concerns that in the absence of a candidate like Donald Trump, the left may become consumed by policy disagreements, including foreign policy. Breen downplayed these concerns as they relate to his organization.

“Truman is a diverse community in every way. What brings everybody together is a shared worldview and commitment to service. That isn’t going to change after the election. Before Trump there was Dick Cheney who provided a unique challenge to what we stand for.” Breen also warned that, “we need to be prepared for the possibility that the politics that came with Trump will endure … we can’t be complacent about it.” Spring offered, “We have the opportunity for a more meaningful discussion [on foreign policy] without [Trump’s] presence.”

While the organization has made clear that its foray into electoral politics will continue, supporting the scale of those efforts will be a growing challenge. Though the group plans to have 100 members run for political office in a future cycle, questions remain on how quickly Truman can reach that scale.

“Our ace in the hole is the incredible quality of our membership,” Breen said. “That’s an incredibly hard thing to get right, and something we put a lot of work and resources into.”

When asked if he had any plans to run for office himself, Breen replied, “I’ve been focused on Truman, but it’s something I’ve thought a lot about. Certainly as we encourage folks to run and see them take that step…that applies to me as well. It’s something I have to think about.”

Time will tell if the “think-do-tank” strategy has a lasting impact on American progressive politics. Truman’s original goal of becoming a counterweight to influential conservative think tanks has survived and thrived for over a decade. Whether the organization can continue to grow beyond its current strength remains to be seen.

Dan Webb, Political Correspondent for Lima Charlie News.

[Additional research by David Polsdorfer]

Dan Webb is a former U.S. Air Force Airborne Systems Engineer on the RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft. He completed three deployments to Southwest Asia in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom totaling over 1200 combat flight hours. He currently works as a software engineer for an Omaha based marketing agency. Previously he worked for the Office of Military and Veteran Services at the University of Nebraska Omaha where, as a student, he received his B.S. in Political Science with a minor in Economics. Dan’s interests include domestic economic policy, veteran’s issues, and national security.

Follow Dan on Twitter | @DanWebbLC 

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