- Joaquin Castro has launched a bid to become the next chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, trying to beat out much older Democrats for the powerful position.
- Someone with Castro’s politics becoming a chairman could represent a generational change for the Democratic party.
- Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Regular Americans — those who don’t spend all day watching C-SPAN — probably couldn’t tell you the last time they watched a House committee meeting. Few can explain how Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats select the men and women tasked with leading our country’s most important policymaking committees.
So I wouldn’t fault you if you hadn’t heard about Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro’s momentous July 13 decision to buck party tradition and seek the chairmanship of one of the House’s most esteemed and powerful committees.
Castro, a 45-year-old four-term Democrat, is upending the seniority-driven traditions that have long determined who gets the privilege of leading the prestigious Foreign Affairs Committee. And that privilege is more than symbolic: the Foreign Affairs Committee has been at the center of defining episodes in modern American history, from passing the use of force agreements that enabled foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to investigating election meddling by Russian government operatives.
Castro’s bid for the chairmanship represents a shift beyond the insular world of Capitol Hill politicking. His vision represents a generational shift in how Democrats approach America’s role as a global leader.
Fixing a broken foreign policy
A prominent leadership role such as Foreign Affairs Chair is a mixed blessing for an ambitious lawmaker.
Whoever ascends to the chair currently held by outgoing New York Rep. Eliot Engel will face broad internal disagreement over what a Democratic foreign policy vision looks like. They’ll also be responsible for the monumental task of rebuilding an American foreign policy left in tatters by four years of Trump administration neglect.
There’s an awful lot to repair. America’s reputation internationally has cratered under Trump . Allies who once looked to the US for global leadership are now working together to craft an international relations regime that tackles complex problems without American involvement. That’s due in part to Trump’s inexplicable mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, but also to four years of make-it-up-as-you-go foreign policy that has succeeded only in alienating European allies while propping up foreign strongmen like North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Matters are worse domestically, where career diplomats at the State Department report record-low morale and record-high resignations across the Foreign Service. Trump’s sidelining of America’s world-class diplomatic corps has led to one of the weakest diplomatic operations of any modern president.The results speak for themselves: in 2010, nearly 23,000 Americans took the grueling Foreign Service Officer Test. By 2018, fewer than 9,000 people took the same test.
A vision for the future
Castro is no stranger to the unprecedented challenges facing American foreign policy, but you won’t see him placing all of the blame on Trump.
In Castro’s mind, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force approved by Congress in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks has been a Pandora’s Box of American military and diplomatic chaos. In the 19 years since its passage, the 2001 AUMF has led American soldiers into not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but the Republic of Georgia, Yemen, Kenya, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Castro’s proposal is simple: pass a better AUMF that restricts future presidents’ ability to commit American troops to battle without full congressional oversight and approval. Castro acknowledges that limiting overseas engagement and bucking America’s immensely powerful military-industrial complex means raising “morally uncomfortable questions” about our addiction to militarizing foreign policy. It’s in debating and answering those uncomfortable moral questions that Castro hopes the Democratic Party will rediscover and expand its core belief in an equitable and ethical liberal internationalism.
America is long overdue for an honest and transparent look at how Congress enabled the worst excesses of President George W. Bush’s War on Terror. And after the corrosive nepotism of Donald Trump’s family-first foreign policy, Democrats and Republicans should welcome a thorough reconsideration of what America stands for abroad, and how we can repair the long-term global damage of Trumpism.
Tackling an outdated seniority system
Castro’s bid to lead House Foreign Affairs requires scaling the sheer cliff face of seniority in a Democratic House where tradition often holds back progressive action.
Castro faces two formidable challengers in Rep. Gregory Meeks and California Rep. Brad Sherman. Meeks, a New Yorker close to longtime chair and outgoing New Yorker Rep. Eliot Engel, stands out as the clear frontrunner. To many Democrats, Meeks’ careful preparation for this moment presents an insurmountable challenge.
Meeks’ seniority and deep relationships in the House will prove a test of Castro’s vote-whipping skills. But Castro is clear his campaign isn’t focused on the traditional inside baseball of Capitol Hill committee assignments. Castro wants his campaign to resonate with voters whose eyes glaze over at the thought of following dusty House proceedings. That’s a task Castro understands well. Castro was elected chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in 2018 and has spent the past two years relentlessly raising the public profile of the Hispanic Caucus through the shrewd use of digital media channels.
If Castro’s expand-the-tent approach sounds like something out of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s electoral playbook, that’s because Castro has been paying attention to how power has shifted since 2018’s “Blue Wave” sent an army of young progressives to Congress.
In just two years, their unapologetically progressive policy agenda has become the center around which Washington political punditry orbits. Even hard-right Republicans acknowledge elected officials like Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Cortez, and Castro are the Democrats’ most effective policy communicators.
Castro’s natural comfort with social media and cable news will make a huge difference in his effort to get regular Americans excited about committee elections normally only discussed in the pages of Capitol Hill policy magazines. There are encouraging signs Castro is leaning into the same social media forward approach that allowed Ocasio-Cortez and other younger legislators to capture a megaphone well beyond their junior status.
A voice to restore American leadership
Democrats are in dire need of a fresh new approach to foreign policy. Any new global doctrine must repeal and replace the apathy of international Trumpism, to be sure, but it must also apply a modern understanding of international law and foreign relations in ways that render our dealings with the world more transparent, more ethical, and more collaborative.
The moment is right for a public debate over what Democrats believe America should stand for on the world stage. Recent polling from the Pew Research Center shows Democratic voters are undergoing a sweeping shift in their foreign policy views: a broad majority of self-identified Democrats (61%) say the State Department should do more to take into account the interests of our allies when forming foreign policy.
These voters also want the United States to resume its role as a global superpower – six in ten Democrats say the world is a better place when America plays an active role in international affairs. Only 45% of Republicans say the same.
Joaquin Castro’s campaign to reform American foreign policy may not end up with the Texas congressman sitting in the chairman’s seat, but his fearless voice should still lead the growing chorus of Americans who want to revitalize and reconsider what it means for America to be a trusted ally and a steward of global order in a time of endless crisis and globe-spanning political tension.
If you have a second, the congressman from San Antonio has a few ideas.
Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics. He regularly appears on NBC News Now, Fox News, and Bloomberg Radio. Follow him on Twitter @TheMaxBurns.