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The Democrats' Dilemma | The Nation

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The Democrats' Dilemma

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In the aftermath of the attacks, Capitol Hill was in shock. Like most Americans, members of Congress were horrified by the loss of life in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, and they were frightened by the prospect that terrorism had come not merely to America but to the edge of the city where they govern. Security fears forced the evacuation of the Capitol the day before Congress voted 98-0 in the Senate and 420-1 in the House to grant Bush broad powers to wage a war on terrorism.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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While Senate Democrats negotiated some constraints on the President's warmaking authority, Democratic Senator Robert Byrd now admits that in giving hasty approval to the use-of-force resolution, Congress failed in its constitutional duties. "[As] I delved more deeply into the resolution, I began to have some qualms over how broad a grant of authority Congress gave [Bush] in its rush to act quickly," says the senior Democrat. "Because of the speed with which it was passed, there was little discussion establishing a foundation for the resolution. Because of the paucity of debate, it would be difficult to glean from the record the specific intent of Congress."

Byrd is not calling for revisiting the resolution, at least not yet. But he is saying that Democrats must remove the "zipper on our lips" and stop yielding to the Bush Administration and Congressional conservatives on issues such as funding National Missile Defense. Byrd's words are echoed by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who argues, "Congress should have debated missile defense instead of yielding to the executive. The campaign against terrorism may well produce collateral damage to the economy and encroachment on the Bill of Rights. Congress also needs to debate those questions more intensely." Schlesinger provided some encouragement to Democrats by reminding them that the party standing in opposition to a wartime President--even one with approval ratings as high as those Bush now enjoys--invariably gains seats in midterm Congressional elections.

But that supposes Democrats will actually mount some kind of opposition.

So far, Republicans have often been the most high-profile challengers of the White House. Senator John McCain was out front in saying Bush was wrong to oppose federalizing airport security. Senator Arlen Specter has been notably outspoken in his questioning of the constitutionality of wiretap provisions in the antiterrorism bill. On the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, House right-wingers have been raising a ruckus about Bush's newfound sympathy for displaced workers. Their loud calls for a stimulus package powered by tax cuts rather than Keynesian social investment appear to be pulling Bush back to the right.

Assuming there might be space to the left of McCain and Specter, however, where might a wise opposition open the debate? Beyond immediate questions that must be raised, especially in the Senate, about whether the War Powers Act is being violated and whether civil liberties are being protected, the opening is obvious: It's still the economy, stupid. Says David Obey, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, "Our patriotic duty is to make sure that the economy is strong, and that working people--not just CEOs--know that their government is on their side."

While other high-ranking Democrats seemed dazed in the weeks after September 11, and even after Gephardt delivered two impassioned pleas for Democrats to back the $15 billion airline bailout bill, Obey and Congressman Lloyd Doggett led a September 21 revolt by close to fifty progressive Democrats against a plan to protect CEOs and investors while neglecting flight attendants and janitors. That marked the first significant break with bipartisanship. Progressives argue that the revolt serves as a model for the populist fight that Congressional Democrats ought to be making.

"I haven't talked to anyone outside Washington who doesn't have a problem with an airline bailout in which the CEOs do very well and the workers don't," says Sherrod Brown. "But I don't think Congress has caught on yet. There are a lot of Democrats who are still afraid to question the President on much of anything. What we need to recognize is that just because the voters support President Bush in pursuing bin Laden doesn't mean that they support the Republican economic agenda. In fact, the community feeling--the coming together that I'm seeing in the country--means, I think, that a lot more people are open to an argument that in tough economic times we've got to take care of everyone, not just the CEOs."

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