Democrats Adrift

Lack of toughness has always been the presumptive knock on the Democratic leadership in Congress -- the suspicion that when the going gets rough and conservatives start applying the pressure, it will cave in and accede to White House demands. Those who felt that way about Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle had their worst fears realized just prior to the election when Congress voted, with their semi-enthusiastic support, to authorize President Bush to take whatever steps he deems necessary in addressing the "imminent threat" of Saddam Hussein. After repeatedly saying they wouldn't give the president a blank check to wage war at his discretion, they did exactly that, surrendering without a fight.

The hawks in the Bush administration (a group that includes the president) now have their precious war-powers resolution, which requires only the filling in of an invasion date to kick off the martial festivities. Like the Tonkin Gulf resolution that provided LBJ with the cover to expand the Vietnam War in 1964 -- and which many in Congress later regretted voting for, based as it was on responding to a nonexistent attack on US naval forces -- the current document puts the official imprimatur of Congress on any extreme action the White House undertakes to preempt the imagined dangers posed by Iraq. As a result, we are now in the position of having to hope the president doesn't "lose it" and create a mess in the Middle East comparable to the one his predecessors Johnson and Nixon created in Southeast Asia a generation ago.

The unkindest cut of all is that Gephardt and Daschle, who could probably have blocked, or at least held up, what West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd correctly calls an assault on the Constitution (war with no declaration of war), allowed it to happen by undercutting nascent opposition in their ranks -- and for the worst of reasons. In each case, personal ambition -- the desire to project a patriotic hard line against terrorism prior to expected presidential bids -- appears to have clouded their better judgment. They weren't the only ones; every prominent Democratic senator thought to be a viable candidate for the White House -- Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry -- voted, in effect, for war. It was the conventionally safe vote, and they cast it.

The Democratic leaders had another motivation, party success in the 2002 election, and here their political smarts have to be seriously questioned. The rationale, it seems, was to get Iraq out of the way, so that Democrats could focus the public on more congenial domestic issues like the economy; it was a critical miscalculation, and they should have known better. The mid-October war-resolution vote came and went, and (surprise!) Iraq didn't go away; it continued to provide Republicans with the distraction they needed to muddy the electoral waters and steal a cheap victory. Any president threatening to unleash the American military can indefinitely dominate the headlines; war, or prospective war, trumps all other concerns, even a collapsed economy and corporate corruption. Karl Rove and Dick Cheney knew it, but Gephardt and Daschle apparently did not. When did Democrats become so politically dense?

If the preoccupation with Iraq wasn't going to dissipate, no matter what (and passing a war resolution only intensified it), policy differences should have been fought out honestly in an extended debate, as in 1991, and not given cursory treatment that implied broad bipartisan agreement, which didn't truly exist. The Democratic leaders, too clever by half, tried to finesse the issue, something that will return to haunt them in 2004. By giving in to Bush, they lent credibility to his stance, accepting that the largely manufactured Iraqi threat, which even the CIA calls overblown, is real.

There was an alternative Democratic strategy: refusing to vote on a war resolution until after the election and allowing already substantial anti-war sentiment (38% nationally in early October, according to Gallup) a chance to grow and coalesce. A pre-election vote, Gephardt and Daschle could have justly argued, would take place in too politically charged an atmosphere for weighty considerations of war and peace. in retrospect, a postponement until the relative calm of the post-election period would have allowed more time to shed light on the administration's exceedingly questionable claims about Iraqi intentions, perhaps cooling pro-war fever in Congress; it would also have given time for ordinary Democrats to impress their views on the party's increasingly out-of-touch Senate bloc, views that are solidly anti-war, at least as far as Iraq is concerned.

This last point was proven conclusively by the vote in the House of Representatives, whose members are not, by and large, running for president and calculating accordingly. Nearly two-thirds (61%) of the Democrats in the House, the body closest to the people, voted against the resolution for unilateral, preemptive war. They were reflecting, we can be sure, the opinions of their constituents. The Democratic leadership may be comfortable with an unprovoked invasion of Iraq, but the Democratic rank and file are not. Factoring in the votes of the more hawkish (or disconnected) Democratic senators, a solid majority of the party's federal officeholders -- 147 out of 257, or 57% -- refused to sign off on open-ended hostilities.

It was a different story on the Republican side, where virtually all senators and House members voted for war. Together, the two congressional chambers produced a GOP vote that was 97% in favor of the administration-backed resolution. Though the mainstream media waxed eloquent about bipartisan unity, it is plainly obvious that, as regards Iraq, there is now a war party and a peace party, one (the GOP) with forceful, coordinated leadership and the other (the Democrats) leaderless and restive.

As we slide down the slippery slope towards open military conflict, Democrats have a right to ask why their designated leaders continue to desert them on issues of consequence and why those leaders advanced no clear pre-election policy agenda, satisfied instead to merely hope a bad economy would do in their opponents. Where were the Democrats, for instance, on the question of rolling back the Bush tax cut? In the end, a strategy of accommodation and metooism accomplished nothing; the Senate is gone, and the House is farther out of reach. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt recognized the inevitable and resigned his post, presumably to run for president (though how he expects to be nominated as a pro-war Democrat remains a mystery). Other top party functionaries, such as Tom Daschle and Terry McAuliffe, should consider doing likewise.

As for the war party, its rhetoric would lead Americans to think GOP officeholders will shortly be trading in their civvies for military uniforms. The Republicans are thirsting for a confrontation with Iraq, they voted overwhelmingly for it, and if there was any justice in the world, they would man the front lines. Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Don Rumsfeld, and the rest of the White House chickenhawks should rightly be first over the top. After all, prominent politicians and celebrities enlisted in World War II. On the other hand, don't count on it.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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