On Wednesday Tom Daschle blew a gasket on the Senate floor. According to the Democratic Majority leader, his fury stemmed from an article by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank which — surprise! — cast President Bush in a bad and unfair light. Milbank wrote: “Four times in the past two days, Bush has suggested that Democrats do not care about national security, saying on Monday that the Democratic-controlled Senate is ‘not interested in the security of the American people.’”
“You tell those who fought in Vietnam and World War II they are not interested in the security of the American people. That is outrageous. Outrageous!” screamed a senator most assumed wouldn’t scream if you poured a pot of hot coffee in his lap. Senator Daschle and other Democrats have since gone to great lengths to count up the missing limbs of various veteran Democrats in order to stir the pot of outrage.
Friday’s Washington Post reports that the president’s accusation “has undermined Bush’s campaign to win swift, bipartisan approval of a muscular resolution from Congress.” The Post story continues, “Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D., S.D.), still seething over the remarks and requesting an apology, gave a cool reception to a new proposal that would grant Bush the power to strike Baghdad unilaterally if he deems it necessary.”
Unfortunately, the president’s accusation — that the Democratic Senate is “not interested in the security of the American people” cited by Milbank wasn’t actually about the war on terrorism. It was about the fight over the proposed Department of Homeland Security in which the Democrats do seem to care more about the security of union jobs (and union-campaign donations) than they do about the security of the American people. Daschle, in his “seething” anger seemed to have elided straight over that point.
But that is a quibble. It is surely true that President Bush has made a political issue of the war. For reasons that continue to baffle me, this is considered unfair or illegitimate. I keep wondering what history books these people have read. After all I could swear the texts I read in college featured all sorts of heroes — including Democrats — who’d campaigned on issues of war and peace. In 1916, a president I find detestable, but whom Democrats adore, Woodrow Wilson, ran with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” I’m pretty sure that FDR used the issue of his wartime leadership in campaigns, but I’m open to correction. John F. Kennedy ran on the so-called “Missile Gap” which seemed to vanish the moment he took office. George McGovern, another South Dakotan senator, I’m pretty sure, ran on a strict antiwar platform in the 1972 election. And those are just a few of the Democrats; don’t get me started on famed Indian-fighter Andrew Jackson or Republicans like Abe Lincoln or Dwight Eisenhower.
Is it so outlandish that during an election the president of the United States would put the issue of war and peace before the American people? There’s absolutely nothing wrong, that I can see, with any principled Democrat or Republican running on an antiwar platform. “Elect me to put the breaks on Bush’s war machine” seems like a reasonable message to take to the American people — if the American people agree with you. After all, if President Bush’s policy and his “mad rush” to battle are so stupid and reckless why are Democrats so furious that he’s putting it out there for the American people to vote on?
And there’s the rub.
Until Al Gore’s self-immolation this week, pretty much all the presidential contenders — John Edwards, Gephardt, Daschle, Lieberman, et al. — in the Democratic party felt the need to support the president and the passage of a resolution supporting war. Indeed, the leaders of the Democratic party, which once was the home of such foreign-policy giants as Truman and Marshall, has acted like a band of dwarves and pygmies grabbing at the president’s pant leg in support of his policies, even as they bit his ankles whenever they could.
The same day that Daschle grew splenetic over the Washington Post report about the president’s comments, the Majority Leader no doubt saw an accompanying story in the Post about how rank-and-file Democrats were growing frustrated with their leadership’s support of the war.
“Several Democrats pointedly suggested that Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Gephardt are putting politics over policy by rushing to back a unilateral strike against Iraq,” reported the Post’s Jim VandeHei. “Both men are considering a run for president in 2004 and hope to gain Democratic congressional seats this fall.” Dennis Kucinich, the closest thing Congress has to a cartoon Bolshevik, lamented “It’s not as though there’s some great rush inside the party to support war. The problem is our leadership has been so outspoken in favor of Bush . . . it causes Democrats to be characterized as favoring the war.”
A cynic might, just might, suspect that Daschle’s outburst had more to do with this article in the Post than the one he claimed to be so offended by. After all, if you are generally in favor of the war but need to bolster your support with the dove wing there’s no better move than accusing the Republicans of McCarthyism — that always works.
Regardless, am I the only one to see a certain contradiction in the fact that for months we’ve been told that any serious Democratic contender for the White House would have to support a war against Iraq and yet at the same time it’s constantly suggested this is an unprincipled position? If war with Iraq is such a bad idea, why do Democratic presidential hopefuls feel the need to support it? And why, especially for a party that fetishizes the “will of the people,” is taking the issue to the voters a bad thing? I just don’t get it.
THE GORE-IFICATION OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY
But I take some solace that I don’t understand the Democratic party’s position on the war, because it is not understandable to the rational mind. Sure, if I spent a week as a taste-tester at a lead paint factory, I might find that the whole thing would click into a coherent whole, like one of those chaotic paintings which require an unfocused mind to see the pattern within it. But for those of us on the right and the left who take these issues seriously, it’s hard to say that the Democratic party, taken as a whole, is a serious party. It wants to “raise questions” without even attempting to answer them itself. It consistently wants to be “troubled” by what Bush is doing without suggesting a course of action that might be less troubling. In short, it is a party of backseat drivers who don’t have anything to say except that the current driver isn’t good enough.
The best example of this is not Tom Daschle’s sudden outrage, but Al Gore’s well-planned outrageousness. There’s not much I can add to the chorus of criticism Gore’s speech has received from every corner. Charles Krauthammer, Bill Bennett, Bill Safire, the editors of The New Republic and National Review have pointed to the countless examples of bad faith, bad logic, and just plain bad manners in Gore’s manifesto of asininity. I recommend all of them as required reading for anyone who takes Gore seriously.
And while I agree with many of the criticisms that have been made, there is one point about which all of them, my bosses included, are simply flat out wrong. They all argue, in the words of Bill Bennett, that this speech proves that if Gore “were president the war against terrorism would be conducted in a radically different manner.”
We know no such thing. And the reason we don’t know it is that Al Gore simply cannot be trusted to say what he thinks and think what he says. For all we know a Gore presidency wouldn’t resemble this speech in the slightest. Since the man from Carthage was always a Bill Clinton without the political skill, it is no surprise that this speech is Clintonism without the sugar coating. It is a skeleton without flesh, an ugly husk of appetite masquerading in an ill-fitting costume of principle.
If one were to plug into a computer all of the things Gore has said over his political career about the use of force, Saddam Hussein, Iraq, and foreign policy in general, the computer would predict that Gore would behave almost exactly as George Bush has thus far in his presidency. There might be a bit more consultation with U.N. and some other variables stemming from the fact that he is a Democrat. But, in essence, Gore would favor nation building, Saddam-toppling, and the rest.
But Gore cannot do that. He cannot support George W. Bush and run for president of the United States. So he must craft a position different from the correct one, different from his own, and, most importantly, different from George Bush’s, because honesty, integrity, and intellectual consistency are just so much ballast holding down his presidential aspirations.
I do not blame those who try to take Gore’s speech as a serious argument about foreign policy. In a democracy, we must take our leaders at their word when they claim to be telling us how they would lead. But that doesn’t change the fact that Gore’s “argument” was really just a string of unconnected gripes and unfair jabs, coherent only insofar as they came out of one mouth and from one set of properly numbered pages. But if you step back and let your eyes focus you can see this fog of jargon wasn’t an argument, it was a tantrum. And in that sense Gore really is the spokesman of his party.