Warring Democrats

Warring Democrats

Before nonpresident Al Gore recently weighed in against President Bush’s rush to war in Iraq (for posing “the potential to seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism and to w


Before nonpresident Al Gore recently weighed in against President Bush’s rush to war in Iraq (for posing “the potential to seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism and to weaken our ability to lead the world”), one of the leading antiwar voices in the Democratic Party was Hank Perritt. Hank Perritt? He’s a law school dean running for Congress against a first-term Republican in Illinois. A Washington Post Op-Ed Perritt penned in mid-September, headlined “My Party Must Say No to War,” was one of the more prominent Democratic denunciations of the coming war, and it won Perritt appearances in cable news land.

True, a small band of liberal House Democrats have been agitating against the war (more on that below). But almost all the so-called national Democrats (which means the guys pondering a presidential run in 2004, including Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and House minority leader Richard Gephardt) have either been cheerleading the “regime change” war or raising process-oriented questions, as opposed to policy-based objections. Gephardt and Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Edwards are Bush Democrats on the war. And Senators Daschle, Joe Biden and John Kerry are questioners, raising concerns about, say, US unilateralism and the anything-goes language of the resolution Bush sent Congress. Biden’s queries suggest he’d like to be persuaded by Bush; Kerry’s are more challenging. He’s proposed a Congressional measure calling on the United Nations to enforce its resolutions on Iraq, but he hasn’t said he’ll vote against a war. (Daschle has attacked Bush for politicizing the Iraq debate, but notes that Bush’s tactics are unlikely to change his vote on whatever final resolution emerges.) Vermont Governor Howard Dean, a long-odds 2004 Democratic contender, has decried the war, but his statements don’t carry any clout.

Several prominent Democratic senators have tried to slow Bush’s dash to war. Carl Levin, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, urges unfettered inspections before war. And after Bush presented his resolution, crusty Robert Byrd huffed, “This is the worst of election-year politics…. The resolution is a direct insult and affront to the powers given on matters of war under the Constitution.” But despite reports that Congress members are getting more antiwar than prowar calls and letters from constituents, Democrats in both houses aren’t even close to blocking (or wanting to block) Bush’s war.

In the House, about twenty Democrats–10 percent of the caucus–have been trying to pull together an opposition. But it’s been tough. “Many of us are depressed,” says Bob Filner, whose district includes parts of San Diego. “Our leadership has been co-opted. Dick Gephardt is steering us in the wrong direction. The Republicans have put us in a complete bind for this election. Gephardt thinks we have to be with the President and that we can knock this [issue] off the table with a quick [prowar] vote. But this is with us until Election Day.” Dennis Kucinich, a Cleveland Democrat leading the opposition, says his group is “using every means necessary” to round up Democrats to vote against the use of force in Iraq. “We’re looking past Gephardt to members whose minds are not made up,” he says. “This vote changes the Democratic Party. The reason the President is moving forward is to change the subject, so when people vote in November, the issue is not the economy, which would result in a Democratic majority…. Some Democrats are unwittingly assisting in insuring we remain in the minority. Some say, Let’s vote for the war, and we’ll switch the debate back to the economy. Oh, please.”

But the opposition hasn’t yet been able to agree on a single alternative resolution–or even whether one should be offered (and House Republicans may not allow alternatives to reach the floor). Various members are considering counterresolutions. Some House Democrats have speculated–and hoped–that minority whip Nancy Pelosi, who has criticized the Bush resolution and questioned whether Iraq presents an imminent threat, will lead Democrats behind a substitute. But as of press time, she hasn’t said she’d do so. And Filner notes that when he proposed drafting a policy statement to be signed by war opponents, the idea fizzled–the consensus being that members should speak for themselves. “This can end up being incredibly embarrassing–the Democrats unable to articulate a unified message on a vital matter,” says an aide to a House liberal. “But many Democrats are more worried about the politics of the war than the policy.” House Democrats looking to thwart Bush are also hobbled by the schedule (there’s much work for Congress to complete before adjourning) and by their desire to be home to campaign for re-election. Filner believes fifty no-war votes might be a good showing for the opposition. But Kucinich maintains, “Democrats have it within our power to stop the war and make the Administration accountable.” So far, few of his party’s leaders see it that way.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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