With few prominent Democratic faces on the national security front, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) has seen her political stock rise in recent months.
The ranking member of the Intelligence Committee has become one of the Democrats’ go-to Members on security and intelligence issues, hitting the Sunday talk show circuit and helping steer the party’s policies and message.
That’s perhaps why she was atop retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s call list on the day he announced his plans to seek the White House.
“Maybe it’s my 15 minutes of fame, maybe it’s longer,” Harman said in an interview. “This is why I came here.”
Given her background, it’s assured the 10 presidential candidates would want her endorsement, which she is taking her time to hand out. Harman, who hails from the electorally rich state of California, also could be on the hopefuls’ short list of vice presidential picks — a proposition she is quick to dismiss.
“It would be an enormous honor,” she said. “But it is less likely than rampant bipartisanship breaking out.”
On the ticket or not, Harman believes any candidate of either party must place security (from homeland to economic) at the center of his or her focus heading into the 2004 presidential campaign.
“I think the country demands it, regardless of party label,” Harman said.
The Los Angeles-area Member, now serving her second tour of duty in the House, jumped into the fold in recent months as a result of her months-old ranking Intelligence slot and the country’s attention to the war on terrorism in general and the conflict in Iraq in particular.
The assignment would seem to test a Democrat’s party allegiance, but Harman insists she is not torn between her party’s push to attack the White House and her role as the ranking member on Intelligence, which has the unique reputation of working in a bipartisan and even apolitical way.
Harman maintained that she can simultaneously challenge President Bush on defense issues and work with her GOP counterparts on Capitol Hill to probe some of the most serious issues involving national security, intelligence and terrorism.
“I don’t have to balance it at all,” she said. “My job as ranking member is about being a partner in making the committee effective.”
That business-like approach is clear to her Republican colleagues, who suggest that the job for Harman is more of a balancing act than she will admit but express confidence in her ability to not let partisanship overtake her duty.
“I understand she is under pressure,” said Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (R-Fla.). “I am aware of the difficult position she’s in.”
But, he added, “She’s talented, smart and energetic. I don’t think anyone has to defend Jane Harman.”
Harman, 58, noted that she’s able to get tough when she has to and will not be a pushover for the administration.
“I think I am aggressive, I think I am critical when it’s necessary,” she said.
“I am hardly timid,” Harman added. “But as I often say, terrorists won’t check our party registration before they blow us up. The point is to solve problems, not point fingers.”
Harman hammered the White House recently for allegedly setting the bar too low on homeland security, saying the United States is not as secure as it needs to be to prevent future terrorist attacks.
She’s also laid out her concerns over major intelligence gaps leading up to the war in Iraq, as President Bush and his administration have come under fire for overselling the country’s threat and to what degree that Saddam Hussein housed weapons of mass destruction.
“[My observations] were not warm and fuzzy,” she said. “But I thought they were fair.”
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), an Intelligence member who arrived in the House with Harman in 1992, said “balance is in Jane’s DNA.”
Harman not only has the right demeanor, Eshoo said, but she also is invested in the credibility of the work the panel produces.
“I don’t think this is the easiest of positions,” Eshoo said. “There are blessings and burdens to it. Jane is well-suited for this.”
Harman was largely thrust into the limelight after Sept. 11, 2001, at which time she was ranking member of the Intelligence subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security. She was pushed even more into the limelight in January, when new Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) named her as the leader’s replacement in the top minority spot on the full panel.
“She is less interested in finding someone to blame when the performance of the intelligence agencies falls short, than in finding out what went wrong and how to fix it,” Pelosi said.
“Her forward-looking style is in keeping with the bipartisan history of the committee, and I know it will serve her well as the committee conducts its investigation of the pre-war intelligence on Iraq,” she said.
Pelosi, known for her progressive politics, also had to walk a fine line on the Intelligence Committee as she prepared to run for Minority Leader. As a result, colleagues said, there is less pressure on Harman to lead the Democrats’ charge to blast Bush over alleged intelligence failures.
“There are no pressures that Jane has that Nancy hasn’t experienced,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (Fla.), the next most senior Democrat on Intelligence. “I think when there’s push-back here, Nancy will be supportive of Jane and understanding of what she’s doing.”
Pelosi and Harman are longtime friends, and Harman credits the Minority Leader with helping her decide to seek a House seat — both times.
Harman first ran for Congress in 1992, in what she calls “Harman I,” her first tenure in the House. The district was largely Republican, and Harman admits that if GOP hopeful Maureen Reagan, daughter of former President Ronald Reagan, had won the Republican primary, the Democrat would “have been a little footnote” in history.
But Reagan lost, and enough of her GOP supporters ultimately jumped into Harman’s camp in the general election, helping the Democrat secure the victory.
Harman narrowly won re-election to her seat through 1998, when she launched an unsuccessful bid for governor of California. She spent two years away from Capitol Hill and was intent on staying away, until prominent Democrats — including Pelosi — urged her to come back.
Lunching with Pelosi at the San Francisco airport as she mulled a comeback, Harman remembers the future Minority Leader urging her to “look into your heart and if you really don’t want to do it, everyone will understand.”
That, coupled with a promise that she would regain her seniority, convinced Harman to come back.
“All of a sudden it took the pressure off,” Harman said of the conversation. “It gave me an opportunity to reflect on what it is I love doing.”
Harman won by a razor-thin margin of 4,000 votes and said she hasn’t looked back. “Harman II has been a fantastic experience,” she said.
That second phase of her Congressional career has brought Harman to the heart of some of the most critical policy debates of the age. But she is up to the challenge.
“I set a high standard for myself,” she said. “I seldom meet it, but life is a journey and I’m in the middle of a fascinating one.”