Politics & Policy

Let’s Put It to a Test

War and elections.

Let’s see. First, some Democrats and liberals to remain nameless (Cynthia McKinney call your office — that is, if rookie fry-girls at McDonald’s are allowed to make personal calls) accused Bush of fomenting war in order to make money in the stock market or some such silliness. Then, others claimed that Bush was beating the drums of war to prop up his sagging poll numbers, even though his numbers had “sagged” from a high orbit of the mid-eighties to a lower, but still stratospheric, orbit of the upper sixties.

Now Bush is being accused of saber-rattling in order to “change the subject” from such bread-and-butter Democratic issues as Canadian-style health care and whining about tax cuts.

Former Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart recently said on CNN, “I think, unfortunately, [the war talk] has more to do with politics, because I think they were very, very anxious to change the subject away from the economy and the corporate governance things and scandals.”

“I’m paranoid for a living,” Jim Jordan, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told the Associated Press. “But it doesn’t seem coincidental that the saber-rattling has gotten louder as we get closer to elections.”

And then, yesterday, on NBC’s Meet the Press, Tim Russert confronted Vice President Cheney on the issue point-blank: “Some Democrats are saying, ‘Why now?’ Why did the administration shift the focus just 60 days before the midterm elections?… Why didn’t you start this campaign against Saddam a year ago, rather than waiting to the eve of an election?”

Dick Cheney’s response contained many excellent points. For example, he noted that the Bush administration has, in fact, been talking about “regime change” in Iraq all year (it’s true: you can look it up). He also expressed exasperation with the suggestion by pointing out that since every other year is an election year, the implication of this argument is that we must therefore always put off pressing issues of national security to odd-numbered years. Who knew Japan’s biggest blunder was launching a surprise attack in 1941? If they’d only done it an election year they could have ruled the Pacific unopposed for a good ten to twelve months!

Cheney also noted, albeit in more diplomatic words, that the timetable for an all-out war with Iraq was pegged to things more consequential than Paul Wellstone’s reelection coffee-klatsch schedule.

For example, Iraqi defectors and U.S. intelligence assets don’t read Congressional Quarterly or “The Hotline” in order to release their findings about smallpox stockpiles at the least advantageous times for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (George Tenet: “Achmed, thanks for risking your life and your family’s to get me this vital information, but next time could you do it when the D-Triple-C is unveiling its new Medicare plan? Thanks, you’re a real trooper”).

But the one thing Dick Cheney didn’t say is the one thing that most needed saying: “Damn straight, Tim, this election is about the war!”

Okay — maybe he shouldn’t say “damn” or use an exclamation point. But, could someone please explain to me what’s so wrong about making these congressional elections about the war?

In Europe, elections are used as referenda on the EU, or the euro, or immigration policy, or a new kind of foot-flavored soft cheese or whatever, all the time. In Israel, governments are formed around issues of war and peace on a regular basis. Such elections focus the public as well as the politicians on what the nation’s agenda should be.

Now, I don’t want to live in a parliamentary democracy (heck, as a small-”r” republican, I’m not that in love with democracy in general). But, if it just so happens that a congressional — or presidential — election happens to coincide with the emergence of the biggest possible issue a country can face, I’m at a loss to understand why we shouldn’t make it the central issue of the election.

This is hardly unprecedented. Plenty of elections have been about single issues, including wars. Remember the whole “don’t change horses in midstream” slogan for Lincoln? The Republicans weren’t offering equine safety tips. Eisenhower said, “Truman, get out of my bathroom, it’s time for you to go.” But he also said, publicly, “I will go to Korea,” not because he dug kimchi but because he was making the war a political issue.

Now, I understand there are risks for both parties in making the next congressional election a referendum on the war. For the Democrats, such a single-issue election could hurt some anti-military and dovish candidates. As the Wall Street Journal notes in its editorial today, Tom Daschle wants to postpone a Senate debate on an Iraq war until after the election, in order to help Paul Wellstone, Tom Harkin, and other Democrats with inconvenient views on the subject.

(By the way, could someone explain to me why Republicans are evil for allegedly making an issue of the war in order to gain a few seats in Congress — while Democrats are somehow virtuous for stifling their convictions in order to save a few seats in Congress? Seems like a moral wash to me.)

There are risks for the Republicans too. After all, campaigning implicitly on war has less of a downside than campaigning explicitly. The GOP could become tarred as the war party if things go badly. Even more problematic — for the White House at least — the public could vote against a war. Then the Bush administration would be stuck with a much more daunting task in persuading a Congress with an anti-war mandate. Then again, the GOP would be off the hook, and the Dems would be on it, for any aggression by Saddam. Still, if you believe — as the Bushies surely do — that deposing Saddam is the right thing to do whether or not it’s politically popular, you might not want to leave the decision to a fickle electorate.

But them’s the breaks in this crazy mixed-up world we call life.

I understand that the Democrats want to make this election about how many free pills old people will get; about how many more tax breaks the working poor deserve; and about how mean conservatives are to puppies, kitties, and birds with broken wings. And if the next year were going to be dominated by those issues, they’d even be right to press their case. But who would honestly predict that the central question of American public life in 2003 will be the various lockboxes, drug giveaways, environmental fantasies, and CEO disembowelments Democrats consider top-shelf issues? If there is a war, all those things will be found nowhere outside the rear pages of The American Prospect. Congress has an explicit, constitutional obligation to consider and debate war. Why is it unfair or illegitimate to put that explicit obligation explicitly before the American people?

In this sense the Democrats are just as cynical — if not more so — than the “warmonger” Republicans they denounce. They are lying to the American people about the significance of this election, and about the likely agenda of the next congressional term, for cheap political gain. There may be some war-mongering Republicans interested in cheap political gain too — though I don’t know who they are — but they at least aren’t being dishonest about what the major issue of the next year will be.


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