Chastened by voter response to their earlier errors, many legislators push reform.
With their handling of the heart-wrenching Terri Schiavo case, George W. Bush and his Republican allies in tragedy exploitation were awash in the currency of Washington: hypocrisy.
In order never to convey
A tolerance for going astray,
Republicans, who now hold sway,
There has been much comment about the take-no-prisoners approach of the Congressional Republican leadership in cramming through the Medicare prescription-drug benefit this past November 22.
When Attorney General John Ashcroft felt obliged to go out campaigning
in August in defense of the USA Patriot Act, his problem wasn't just
what people were saying about the act.
Democrat Paul Wellstone, the only vulnerable incumbent senator to vote
against blank-check authorization to use force against Iraq, is locked
in one of the year's closest Senate contests.
In January, when George W. Bush's pollster warned that "Enron is a much
bigger story than anyone in Washington realizes," White House political
director Karl Rove informed the Republican National Committee that this
fall's election would have to be about national security rather than the
economy. Rove wasn't practicing political rocket science; he was merely
echoing the common-sense calculations of veteran Republican strategists
like Jack Pitney, who says, "If voters go to the polls with corporate
scandals at the top of their list, they're probably going to vote
Democratic. If they go [thinking about] the war on terrorism and taxes,"
Republicans have the advantage. Now, with the election that will set the
course for the second half of Bush's term less than two months away,
Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, National Security
Adviser Rice and every other Republican with a talking-head permit is
busy making the improbable case for war with Iraq.
Rove's sly strategy appears to be working. On September 4, the day
Congress returned from its summer break, the Dow Jones average plunged
355 points. Yet the next morning's headlines talked about how Bush would
"put the case for action in Iraq to key lawmakers." Whether Bush
actually believes that the war he's promoting is necessary--or even
marketable--there's no question that Republican prospects are aided by
the fact that he's talking about Saddam Hussein rather than Enron,
WorldCom, Harken, Halliburton, deficits, layoffs and 401(k)atastrophes.
There is, however, some question as to why Democrats are allowing Rove's
scenario to play out so smoothly. Along with those questions comes the
fear that unless the supposed party of opposition finds its voice soon,
Democrats could squander opportunities not only to stop a senseless and
unnecessary war but also to hold the Senate and wrest control of the
House from the right in November.
So far, however, most of the coherent Congressional challenges to the
Bush strategy have been initiated by Republicans worried about the
threat a war would pose to the domestic economy (House majority leader
Dick Armey) or who actually listen to the State Department (Jim Leach, a
key player on the House International Relations Committee). While Bush
and Rove have had trouble keeping their GOP comrades in line, they've
had more luck with Democrats. Only a handful of Democrats, like
Progressive Caucus chair Dennis Kucinich, have echoed Armey's blunt
criticisms of the rush to war. A few more have chimed in with practical
arguments against the Administration line, a view perhaps best expressed
by Martin Sabo of Minnesota, who says that "to move into a country and
say we're going to topple the government and take over the
government--and I think inherent in that is also 'run it'--is not
something we have ever proved very capable of doing."
But House Democratic opposition has been muddled by the fact that
minority leader Dick Gephardt has positioned himself as an enthusiastic
backer of "regime change" in Iraq. One senior member of his caucus says,
"You can pin most of the blame on Gephardt. If he hadn't been so
enthusiastic about going to war when the Bush people brought this up in
the first place, I think they would have backed off." Acknowledging that
Gephardt's position could make it difficult to hold off a House vote in
October, Kucinich says, "I think it could all come down to how Daschle
handles the issue."
Senate majority leader Tom Daschle is not doing Bush as many favors as
Gephardt--Daschle at least says Congress needs more information. But the
Senate's leader has yet to echo likely 2004 Democratic presidential
candidate Senator John Kerry's suggestion that a policy of containment
would be sufficient to manage any threat posed by Iraq, let alone to
express the steady skepticism of Senate Armed Services Committee chair
Carl Levin, who left a meeting at which Rumsfeld tried to make the case
for war and said, "I don't think [the Administration] added anything."
Daschle's caution is rooted in his concern that a misstep on issues of
war and patriotism could jeopardize his continued leadership of the
Senate. It's a legitimate worry; his one-seat majority could well be
endangered if flag-waving appeals take hold--as they have before--in
Senate battleground states like Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Georgia,
North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Daschle's own South Dakota.
But Daschle's caution is not making things easier for Democrats in those
states. It has simply left him playing Karl Rove's game when he should
be saying what most Americans know: that in the absence of any credible
evidence of an immediate and quantifiable threat from Iraq, Congress
should not get bogged down in this issue. Moving aggressively to shift
the focus from Iraq to corporate wrongdoing and economic instability
would be smart politics for Daschle and the Democrats. More important,
calling the President's bluff on Iraq would slow the rush toward a
senseless war while freeing Congress to debate genuine threats to
It's been six months since nineteen fanatics controlled by Al Qaeda seized four airliners and wreaked bloody, fiery havoc on the United States. In the aftermath, stunned and angry Americans gave the Bush Administration their full-throated support for a war against the perpetrators of the atrocities and those who directed, financed or harbored them. Now, at the half-year mark, Bush's approval rating for this war still hovers above 80 percent, but hairline cracks are appearing in the consensus.
As John Nichols reports in this issue, Representative Dennis Kucinich's recent speech criticizing Bush's war went where no Democrat had gone before. His message--that Americans had not enlisted for the wider military effort the Administration is now undertaking or for the curtailment of civil liberties at home--evidently struck a nerve. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Senator Robert Byrd lectured Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that there would be no more blank checks for the Pentagon, while Senate majority leader Tom Daschle mildly reproached the Administration by asking whatever happened to Osama bin Laden and Muhammad Omar.
Daschle's cautious criticism struck a Republican nerve. Senate minority leader Trent Lott blasted Daschle for trying to "divide the country." But the ancient dodge of hiding behind what Senator John Kerry in a recent speech called the "false cloak of patriotism" may not work this time around. Polls show that a majority of respondents don't want Bush to expand the war beyond Afghanistan unless there is hard evidence that the nation targeted is harboring terrorists. The renewal of fighting in Afghanistan with US troops heavily engaged is a reminder that there is an unfinished job in Afghanistan, not only mopping up Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants but helping the central government extend its writ outside Kabul. This is no time to embark on a global crusade against nebulous "evil."
The casualties US forces have been taking in the new fighting will mute the criticism, but Democrats, who had unwisely pledged to allow "no daylight" between them and Bush on the war, seem to be positioning themselves to begin asking some impolite questions. These are long overdue. The Administration has recently been committing US troops to a series of problematic missions, none of them more than distantly related to the original war on Al Qaeda authorized by Congress. In the strategically important Philippines, US "trainers" are in country aiding the hunt for a band of kidnappers; in Georgia US instructors will be at risk of becoming caught up in a civil war. There is high-level talk about committing US combat troops to Colombia's civil war, cynically transforming counternarcotics into counterterrorism. And then there is Iraq, glittering prize for a politically potent alliance of Pentagon hawks and Beltway conservatives.
Now that Democrats in Congress have regained their lost voice, they should use it more--asking tough questions, grilling officials about the new commitments, about exit and entrance strategies (i.e., what objectives are these troops being sent to achieve?). One might think Congress would be in a feisty mood these days after the way this Administration has ignored it--not even telling it about those secret bunkers where senior officials will ride out a terrorist strike. Apparently, the White House thinks Congress is expendable. It's certainly conducting the war as if it does.
Dennis Kucinich never doubted that millions of Americans had deep concerns about George W. Bush's ever-expanding war on ill-defined foes abroad and on civil liberties at home. But the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair admits he underestimated the depth of the discomfort until February 17, when he delivered a speech to the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action, in which he declared, "Let us pray that our country will stop this war."
Recalling the Congressional vote authorizing the President's response to the September 11 terrorist attacks--a resolution supported by Kucinich and all but one member of Congress, California Democrat Barbara Lee--the Ohioan thundered, "We did not authorize an eye for an eye. Nor did we ask that the blood of innocent people, who perished on September 11, be avenged with the blood of innocent villagers in Afghanistan. We did not authorize the Administration to wage war anytime, anywhere, anyhow it pleases. We did not authorize war without end. We did not authorize a permanent war economy. Yet we are upon the threshold of a permanent war economy."
Kucinich's "Prayer for America" speech was interrupted by repeated standing ovations. But the real measure of the message's resonance came as the text of the speech circulated on the Internet--where a genuine worldwide web of opposition to the Administration's actions led to the posting of Kucinich's words on websites (including www.thenation.com) and dispatched them via e-mail. Within days, Kucinich received 10,000-plus e-mails. Many echoed New Jerseyan Thomas Minet's sentiments: "Since the 'Axis of Evil' State of the Union Address, I have been searching like Diogenes with his lantern for one honest person in Congress who would have the guts to speak out about the attack on Democracy being mounted by the Bush Administration. It has been a frustrating search indeed, and I was just about ready to give up hope when I ran across 'A Prayer for America.' Thank God for this man's courage." Others simply read, "Kucinich for President."
For Kucinich, a former Cleveland mayor who led Democratic opposition to the US bombing of Yugoslavia and proposed establishing a Cabinet-level Department of Peace, speaking out against military adventuring is not new. But he says he's never experienced so immediate and enthusiastic a response. "We can't print out the messages as fast as we are receiving them," he says. "But I've read through a lot of them now, and they touch on the same themes: The Administration's actions are no longer appropriate, and it is time for Congress to start asking questions. The people understand something most of Congress does not: There is nothing unpatriotic about challenging this Administration's policies."
Kucinich was not the first Congressmember to express concern about Bush's plans. Lee cast her cautionary vote in September. In October, responding to reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Representative Jim McDermott criticized the speed with which the Administration had taken military action and the failure of the White House to adequately consult Congress. In December, Kucinich, McDermott and Lee joined five other House Democrats in signing a letter to Bush, written by Representative Tammy Baldwin, which noted, "We are concerned by those in your Administration and among our own ranks in the Congress who appear to be making the case for broad expansion of this military campaign beyond Afghanistan. Without presenting clear and compelling evidence that other nations were involved in the September 11 attacks, it is inappropriate to expand the conflict." Another letter, by Representative Peter DeFazio, called on the White House to comply with the War Powers Resolution before expanding the war. In February Senator Robert Byrd said that Congress should no longer hand the President a "blank check." Senate majority leader Tom Daschle suggested the war "will have failed" without the capture of Osama bin Laden--a statement rebuked by Republicans, who want no measure of success or failure applied to this war.
But Kucinich's speech was a clarion call. "For most people, Kucinich's speech represents the clearest Congressional criticism they have heard about the conduct of the war, and of the Administration's plans to expand it. That's enormously significant," said Midge Miller, who helped launch Senator Eugene McCarthy's antiwar challenge to President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. "Citizens look for Congressional opposition to organize around--they look for leaders to say something. When I read Kucinich's speech, I thought, This could be a turning point."
It has certainly been a turning point for Kucinich. Overwhelmed by invitations to speak, he says his top priority will be to work with Baldwin and others to encourage a broader Congressional debate over international priorities, Pentagon spending and the stifling of dissent. Expect battles in the House Democratic Caucus, where minority leader Dick Gephardt has been more cautious than Daschle about criticizing Bush. But Kucinich thinks more Democrats will begin to echo Senator Byrd's challenge to blank-check military spending in a time of tight budgets. Kucinich plans to encourage grassroots activists to tell members of Congress it is not merely necessary but politically safe to challenge "the Patriot Games, the Mind Games, the War Games of an unelected President and his unelected Vice President."
Kucinich, whose working-class district elected a conservative Republican before him, is confident Democrats from even the most competitive districts can safely join him in questioning the war. "The key," he says, "is to recognize that there is a great deal of unity in America around some basic values: peace and security, protection of the planet, a good quality of life for themselves and for others. When people express their patriotism, they are not saying--as some would suggest--that they no longer believe in these things. There's nothing unpatriotic about asserting human values and defending democratic principles. A lot of Americans are telling me this is the highest form of patriotism."