Democrats display weakness by bowing to Bush

October 14, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, in belatedly declaring his support for President Bush's war resolution, said, "It is important for America to speak with one voice at this critical moment."

Both the House and Senate have decisively given the president a free hand to use force against Iraq, with that hand obviously strengthened in seeking a U.N. resolution that would make it unnecessary for America to go it alone.

But it was clear from the debate in both houses that Mr. Daschle's Democratic Party does not speak with one voice on the matter. The 126 House Democrats and 21 Senate Democrats who voted against the Bush resolution did not reflect a broader discontent in their party about endorsement of a pre-emptive war.

With congressional elections barely more than three weeks away, many Democrats did not want to be seen by voters as opposed to a popular president and risk allegations of insufficient patriotism, or worse. Some also bought into the argument of Mr. Daschle and House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt that the wise political choice was to pass the war resolution and try to get the electorate to focus on the troublesome state of the economy.

At the same time, however, many Democrats in Congress acknowledged a significant groundswell of grass-roots opinion in their districts and states against the notion of starting a war absent any clear and imminent threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction on U.S. forces or facilities.

The spirited opposition voiced in the Senate by President Pro Tem Robert Byrd of West Virginia, based on his defense of the Constitution's explicit assignment to Congress of the power to declare war, triggered (according to Mr. Byrd) 50,000 e-mails and 20,000 phone calls of support to him in the five days before the Senate vote.

Liberal Democrats especially are chagrined that Mr. Gephardt and then Mr. Daschle fell in behind Mr. Bush with the rationale that they had improved the resolution. However, it still gives the president authority to use force when, where and how he chooses without further consultation with Congress.

Such liberal unhappiness could be costly to both Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Daschle if it manifests itself in low voter turnout on Nov. 5, resulting in GOP control of both houses and denying Mr. Gephardt his chance at becoming House speaker and Mr. Daschle his Senate leadership.

It could hurt them as well in 2004, if they seek the Democratic presidential nomination, especially if war against Iraq turns sour. The left wing of the party, while shrinking in the era of the New Democrat movement brought to center stage by Bill Clinton, remains a significant if not dominant role in the primary election process.

In any event, the party split over the current president's war resolution does not bode well for Democratic fortunes generally over the next two years. Success either in disarming Iraq without war or forcing that outcome with American military power will only enhance Mr. Bush's political strength, encouraging him to push even harder on his domestic agenda and isolating the Democrats.

Conversely, if war against Iraq should turn into a quagmire, as did the Vietnam War, Democrats in Congress who voted against the resolution or then wish they had will be in full cry, predictably creating intraparty turmoil of the sort that scuttled Hubert Humphrey's presidential chances in 1968.

As for now, the heavy Democratic vote in Congress for the Bush war resolution puts the president in a commanding political position despite the split in party control there. Earlier Democratic dreams of winning both houses also seem less likely of becoming reality on Nov. 5 for a party that appears adrift compared to the determined, muscle-flexing Republican in the White House.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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