Campaign for Congress: even doves of '60s feeling voters' hawkish mood
Washington — Barely a decade ago, Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin and Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado were battling -- one as a lawmaker and the other as a private citizen -- to end American involvement in the Vietnam war.
Now Senator Nelson, scrambling for re- election, boasts of his efforts this year to hike defense spending by $20 billion.
Senator Hart, also campaigning to keep his job, champions a bigger Navy and plays up his chairmanship of an armed services subcommittee.
National security and other issues with a foreign slant have loomed unusually large throughout the campaign in this recessionary year despite the fact that there is no shortage of the bread-and-butter domestic economic issues that traditionally dominate federal elections in the United States.
With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian seizure of American hostages stirring an electorate already believed to be waxing more conservative, the 1980 election is being rated as perhaps the most military-minded and nationalistic since the end of the cold war.
"In the wake of events in Iran and Afghanistan," observes Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana, "the voters are in a much more assertive, even militaristic, mood in the field of international affairs."
House minority leader John Rhodes (R) of Arizona sees it, too, but describes the phenomenon a little differently, calling it a "great upsurge of patriotism."
Just as the issues of war and peace have preoccupied presidential contenders Carter and Reagan, in congressional races the candidates often seem to be running against Leonid Brezhnev or Ayatollah Khomeini instead of their Republican or Democratic opponents.
While as recently as four years ago congressional contestants were debating whether to cut defense spending by $5 billion to $7 billion, this year few proponents can be found for anything but hefty increases.
The political stampede is led by pro-defense Republicans, such as Sheila Seuss, the challenger of Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D) of Indiana. Her television commercials pose her in front of the B-1 bomber, which the Democratic incumbent opposes.
In the hawkish electoral climate of 1980, 20-year veteran liberal Rep. James Corman (D) of California finds himself in the unusual position of claiming credit for bringing into his Los Angeles district $1.1 billion worth of defense contracts in the past year.
In the face of Republican campaign aspersions, even conservative Sen. Robert B. Morgan (D) of North Carolina, who has an anything-but-dovish voting record on defense issues, has resorted to airing television ads detailing the arsenal of military weapons he has supported.
A Southern collegue, Sen. Donald Stewart (D) of Alabama, sent home-state newspapers a photograph of himself in rapt discussion with Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Stennis (D) of Mississippi about what was described as how to "strengthen national defense."
(The approach didn't work. The Alabamian was defeated for party renomination Sept. 23.)
Another political tactic in this post-detente election year is to run as a firm foe of the Kremlin.
When an obscure Soviet shipping journal portrayed Rep. John Murphy (D) of New York as "a Washington hawk . . . trying to sustain anti-Soviet hysteria," the congressman brandished the Russian condemnation as a badge of honor.He triumphantly issued a three-page press release announcing it to his constituents.
The nearly year-long holding of American hostages in Iran, meanwhile, has led congressional candidates seemingly to try to outdo each other in impressing on voters their concern.
No sooner had Sen. Birch Bayh Jr. (D) of Indiana introduced legislation authorizing trade sanctions against countries failing to join an economic protest of the Afghan invasion than his Republican challenger, Rep. Dan Quayle, introduced a similar measure over the Iranian situation.
Rep. Thomas B. Evans Jr. (R) of Delaware is ceremoniously displaying the American flag at his house and office every day until the hostages are released. And he has helped hundreds of his constituents obtain flags at cost at a time when, he says, "Our country is just plain being kicked around the world."
On the opposite coast, Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R) of California, who first gained public attention with his promotion of Vietnam prisoner-of-war bracelets, is getting new political mileage out of similar Iran hostage bracelets.
Others are capitalizing on voters' distasteful memories of unruly demonstrations by Iranian students in this country by pointing to bills they support to allow deportation of foreign students who participate in violent protests.