I wonder how Barbra Streisand feels.
On September 29, at the fancy Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, she headlined a $6 million fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. With her on the stage was House minority leader Richard Gephardt. As she sang a politics-drenched rewrite of “The Way We Were” (“Mis’ries/seems that’s all that fills the news/blame the fellas in the White House/for the way we are”), she interjected comments bashing George W. Bush and the Republicans. At one point she commented, “I find bringing the country to the brink of war unilaterally five weeks before an election questionable–and very, very frightening.” This remark echoed a confidential memo a Streisand aide sent Gephardt a few days earlier. In that note, Streisand pressed “Democrats to get off the defensive and go on the offensive.” The memo also said, “Many of the industries run by big Republican donors and insiders clearly have much to gain if we go to war against Iraq. Barbra urges the Democrats to publicly convey this message to the American people.”
That’s hardly the message Gephardt pushed once he left Babs-land and returned to Washington. Three days after the concert, he brokered a deal with the White House that guaranteed passage of a resolution authorizing Bush to launch war on Iraq as “he determines to be necessary and appropriate” in order to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq” and to enforce United Nations resolutions. The Gephardt-backed measure was less of a blank check than the one Bush had sent to Congress. The differences, though, meant little. Under the negotiated resolution, Bush will have to report to Congress that “diplomatic and other peaceful means alone” were not sufficient to thwart Saddam Hussein and enforce UN resolutions. But Bush does not have to issue such a report until two days after he initiates an attack. Gephardt (and the GOP House leaders) are telling Bush, shoot whenever you like, explain later. And once bombs are falling and US troops are in harm’s way, how many members of Congress are going to challenge Bush’s finding, if they consider it unpersuasive, and then attempt to de-authorize a wartime president? (“I demand you withdraw 100,000 troops and recall the bombers because you misread the last Iraqi communique on the inspections process!”)
If war comes, it will not only be Bush’s war. It will be Gephardt’s war. Other key shareholders will be Democratic Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Edwards, two presidential wannabes who have been pre-running as get-Saddam hawks. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s stake in the enterprise is uncertain as of this writing. He has griped about Bush’s politicized rhetoric and raised questions about Bush’s dash toward war, but has not opposed the underlying policy. (And Daschle can thank Gephardt, who held his own unilateral negotiations with the White House, for cutting a deal that undermined any move Daschle might have contemplated to limit the use-of-force resolution.) Most Democrats in both the House and the Senate are expected to vote in favor of authorizing Bush to mount a war–even a unilateral one–against Saddam Hussein.
Which means that on the most vital issue of this election season, there is little distinction between the two parties. The Republicans are almost entirely for this war; the Democrats are mostly for it. Whatever happens–good, bad, in-between–Gephardt and the war-enabling Dems will bear responsibility and will deserve to be judged alongside Bush. In fact, some might deserve to be judged more harshly. It is no secret that on Capitol Hill, many Democrats are motivated to vote for the resolution out of political calculation. They do not believe war against Iraq at this time is a good idea, but they fear looking soft or being caught on the wrong side of what might be a popular war. They are hoping to buy security–their own– with blood.
Bush may be motivated in a similar fashion, but there’s a greater chance he truly believes in the mission. Gephardt, too, might buy the ever-shifting national security arguments for this war pitched by Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice (rather than the caution expressed recently by retired General Wesley Clark, a former NATO commander; retired General Joseph Hoar, a former chief of the US Central Command; and retired General John Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), but since 9/11 he has also adopted the political strategy of embracing the President on foreign policy matters in an attempt to prevent Republicans from hurling the time-tested weak-on-security charge against the Democrats. And against himself. Gephardt, after all, is eyeing a presidential run.
Perhaps when he lies awake at night, counting sheep on a White House lawn, Gephardt can say how much of his support for this war stems from policy concerns, and how much from crass political gamesmanship. But it’s tough to see how his stance will benefit him and the Democrats. If the war goes well–and that is a possibility–Bush will receive most, if not all, of the credit and be strengthened for 2004. (Hopeful Democrats might note that Bush I was booted out of office after winning the Gulf War, but Bush II’s accomplishments–“liberating Iraq” and “taking out” Saddam–will probably resonate more deeply and for longer than did his father’s success in pushing Saddam out of Kuwait.) Me-too Democrats will likely find it difficult to tap the post-war celebration for political advantage. And if the war turns ugly, Gephardt and the other Democratic leaders now leaping aboard Bush’s war-wagon will be in no position to complain.
So what’s a frightened diva to do? Gephardt is not only not accusing Bush of using diversionary tactics, of practicing arrogant and perhaps dangerous unilateralism, and of greasing the wheels of war-profiteering. He is literally empowering Bush. He fiercely attacks the President on economic and budgetary matters. But he is greenlighting an endeavor that could further derail the federal budget and consume resources for the sort of domestic programs Streisand and Gephardt crave. With their wholehearted support of Bush’s prospective war, Gephardt and other Democrats are essentially agreeing with Bush’s argument that the nation’s number-one priority is the anti-Saddam crusade. Not rising poverty. Not the rising number of Americans without health insurance. Not rising unemployment. Not pension reform. No matter how loud Gephardt thumps the podium on the House floor when he claims these are the real issues of the ongoing congressional campaign.
Gephardt’s actions do not remove the war issue from the political table; they add momentum to preparations for war. He has cosigned the current centerpiece of the Bush presidency. In Streisandian terms, Bush said to Congress, “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” and Gephardt bounded forward with an opened umbrella. This war will be a Republican-Democratic duet.